Caleb Gilbert was one of the heroes of LSU’s run to the College World Series finals in 2017. His gem against mighty Oregon State to propel LSU into the championship series will go down as one of the superb efforts in program history.
LSU handed the ball to Gilbert on Opening Night 2018 in part because of his late-season brilliance the summer before. Gilbert went 5-0 across his final nine appearances in a variety of roles. He allowed just two earned runs in 26.2 innings (0.68 ERA) and struck out 32.
Now, nearly a month into his senior season, Gilbert has yet to appear in a game. He was left home from LSU’s trip to Austin, which ended in a Texas sweep as the Tiger pitching staff struggled mightily in their first road test.
So what exactly is going on with Gilbert? The answer to that question isn’t particularly simple.
“It’s a pretty strange situation,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said earlier this week.
Here’s the gist of it: Gilbert’s velocity dipped throughout his junior season, during which he pitched to a bloated 5.58 ERA. He eventually lost his spot in the weekend rotation, and his role was reduced to that of a mop-up reliever on a pitching-starved team by the time the season ended.
After the season, Gilbert underwent surgery to have his right shoulder cleaned out. The prognosis from LSU at the time was for the right-hander to miss all of fall ball but be ready for the start of the season.
Needless to say that hasn’t happened.
Gilbert is technically healthy and hasn’t felt any pain in his surgically-repaired shoulder. He’s frequently in the bullpen working with LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn during practice and before games. But as Mainieri explains it, he’s just not ready to pitch in a competitive situation.
“Caleb is kind of struggling right now with his mechanics and his confidence, those types of things,” Mainieri said. “He’s not having any pain at all. He’s just not quite ready to pitch. He’s trying to figure it out again. I hope that he does in able to be able to help us this year.”
It sounds weird, but Mainieri has encountered this kind of post-surgical struggle before.
While at Notre Dame, Mainieri coached a right-handed pitcher named John Axford. He missed his junior season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and once healthy, it was as if he had to learn how to throw a baseball all over again from scratch.
Axford has gone on to a 10-year Major League career as a relief pitcher. He led the National League in saves in 2011 as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers and remains in the big leagues today. But it took a lot of time and patience along the way.
“All kids react to surgeries differently,” Mainieri said. “Eric Walker had Tommy John surgery, and from the time you started watching him throw, you would’ve never known it. I’ve had kids in past years that’ve had a surgery and it’s almost like they forgot how to throw a baseball when they came back. It just took more for them, but eventually they got it.”
There’s no telling if and when things will click again for Gilbert to the point he could rejoin the staff in any meaningful role.
For now, LSU is going to continue working with him and hope for the best.