Lose eight pitchers from a staff that propelled a team to the College World Series, and you’re looking at a pretty big question mark.
That’s the problem LSU’s facing as they enter the 2014 season. Players like Chris Cotton, Ryan Eades and Nick Rumbelow were vital cogs to the Tigers’ success a year ago. Now Paul Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn are tasked with figuring out who can step up from the remaining group of talent.
The Tigers do have some quality depth in their pitching staff though, even with the attrition from last year. Exiting fall practices, Mainieri said there were as many as a dozen pitchers he felt could have an impact this season. Having that many options will certainly help LSU, but most are still inexperienced when it comes to major college baseball.
“We have a lot of strength,” said junior ace Aaron Nola. “We lost a lot of really good guys last year, but we also had a lot of guys come back this year. They are solid. I think it is really going to come together. I don’t think I could name just one main guy right now. It is really all just starting to come together. But the fans are going to see what we can do.”
When you have a guy like Nola headlining the staff, it certainly eases a lot of the concern. Nola’s coming off one of the most dominant seasons in LSU history, only suffering one loss, which came in his final appearance. He had a streak of four consecutive complete games and finished the year as the SEC’s leader in strikeouts with 122.
So while expectations are understandably high for Nola, Mainieri has no doubts he’ll live up to them and possibly even exceed them. Mainieri said Nola will hold his velocity deeper into games, his curveball is tighter and his changeup is more deceptive.
"I think he handles the pressure pretty well,” Mainieri said. “He almost had a perfect season last year. He handled the pressure last year in an amazing way. I know the expectations are high for him, but even in high school the pressure was on him and he's always handled it in an even-keeled way."
Behind Nola is a three-man race for the two remaining spots in the rotation. Left-handers Cody Glenn, Kyle Bouman and Jared Poche are all vying for a weekend role, and that competition will continue through the first couple weeks of the season.
Mainieri has already said that Nola will be the Tigers’ opening night starter against New Orleans on Friday. Bouman will start Saturday against the Privateers in Zephyr Stadium, then Poche will get the nod when the Tigers return home on Sunday. Glenn will start midweek on the road against Southeastern Louisiana.
Mainieri will stick with that order for the first two and a half weeks, then give Poche a midweek start on the road March 4 against Northwestern State. That will give all three potential starters an opportunity to pitch away from Alex Box Stadium.
Glenn would seem the most likely of the three to secure a spot in the rotation. He emerged last year as LSU’s No. 3 starter and had many flashes of brilliance throughout the season. He finished the year with a 7-3 record and a 2.68 ERA, but Mainieri wants to see a bit more consistency and improvement before he’s permanently slotted into the rotation.
Bouman and Poche are the two newcomers in this mix. Bouman, a JUCO transfer, is a three-pitch lefty who recorded a 1.70 ERA in 58 1/3 innings last year with Jefferson County (Mo.) Community College. Poche’s the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Louisiana, and Mainieri has high expectations for the freshman lefty.
Freshman Jared Poche's fighting for a rotation spot
Mainieri said Poche’s “not a typical freshman” as he displays tremendous confidence on the mound and can regularly throw his curveball for strikes. He’s taken exceptionally well to Dunn’s coaching and could very well be in the rotation by conference play.
"It's a rare occasion that an 18-year-old is ready to make that kind of jump,” Mainieri said. “Aaron Nola and Kevin Gausman were exceptions, and I hope Jared Poche will be an exception, but you just don't see it very often."
Aside from the uncertainty with the rotation, there’s plenty left to be decided in the bullpen as well, particularly at closer. Mainieri said LSU’s been spoiled by guys like Cotton and Nick Goody the last two years, and finding a suitable replacement will be a primary focus in the early season.
"The closer is my biggest concern,” Mainieri said. “I know in this league, if you can't finish games, you can't win. It's that simple...We've got to find out who can do that."
LSU-Eunice transfer Brady Domangue seemed to be LSU’s first choice coming out of fall practices, but Mainieri admits he still isn’t quite where they want him to be. He still has hope that Domangue will continue to get better, but in the meantime, the coaches will give other guys an opportunity to prove themselves.
Mainieri’s mentioned veterans Kurt McCune and Joe Broussard as guys that could step in and close. McCune began his career as a weekend starter, but has since been left in the bullpen as he’s struggled with injuries the last two years. Broussard returns to the field for the first time since 2012 after missing the entire 2013 season with an elbow tear.
Mainieri said both guys have been throwing exceptionally well in practice, and he hopes both will have a big impact this year.
"They're going to be the keys to our pitching staff,” Mainieri said. “Both of them have had their moments in their careers where they've been outstanding. I’m expecting big things out of both guys."
Outside of these pitchers, there are several others that could have roles out of the bullpen. Hunter Newman was in contention for a starting spot before injuries set him back. He won’t start the season 100 percent, but he could emerge as the year goes on.
Nate Fury is back to full strength after undergoing surgery in the offseason. Hunter Devall got some action last season, and newcomers Henri Faucheaux, Alden Cartwright and Parker Bugg could also get some significant innings as well.
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