Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE – He was getting misty eyed as he explained his pitching philosophy last week moments before the beginning of the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft that would produce his third, first round pitcher selection in five years.
“I was raised that way,” LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said to conclude with an emphasis that left no reason to retort or think he would ever change.
And good for him. In this modern age of college athletics, some coaches bend and posture more than Gumby himself to accommodate petulant quarterbacks, arrested stars and the opportunity to win it all no matter what.
Mainieri, the son of Hall of Fame college coach Demie Mainieri (Miami-Dade North Community College), is not some college baseball coaches in one respect. He simply refuses to bring back to the mound a pitcher who has thrown a lot of pitches in recent days no matter how critical the juncture in NCAA postseason play nor how brief that return performance could be.
Freshman left-hander Jared Poche started on May 30 for LSU and threw 78 pitches – 30 fewer than in his winning start at Auburn on May 15 and 13 fewer than in his winning start against Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on May 21. He had two full days of rest and parts of two others – Friday night and Monday morning and afternoon - before the 7 p.m. starting time last Monday of the NCAA Regional championship game between LSU and Houston.
But Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn ruled Poche off limits for the game.
“We thought about it,” Mainieri said later. “We thought about it, but no. He had only two days of rest. I’m not going to do that to a kid who has a future in pro baseball, and Jared Poche does.”
LSU, a top eight seed, lost to Houston 12-2 as its second line pitching wilted after losing to the Cougars 5-4 in 11 innings the night before. A win in either, and LSU would have hosted Texas over the weekend in a Super Regional.
There were examples of other coaches pushing the pitcher fatigue envelope in league tournaments and NCAA Regionals. Houston coach Todd Whitting, for example, threw junior right-hander Jared Robinson for six and two-thirds innings and 91 pitches in the Cougars’ NCAA Regional opening, 3-2 win over Bryant on May 30. That followed Poche’s 78 pitches that Friday.
On Monday in the NCAA Regional title game against LSU, Whitting brought Robinson back on two days rest to relieve starter Andrew Lantrip in the third inning of a 2-2 tie. Robinson threw 100 pitches in six and one third innings to get the win, limiting LSU to four hits and zero runs with eight strikeouts and a walk. That’s 191 pitches in four nights. It is safe to assume Mainieri has never done such a thing.
“At this time of year, where it’s all hands on deck, you just do what you can to win the games,” Whitting said. Not Mainieri.
Now, Robinson did pitch the fourth through eighth innings with a 9-2 cushion against an LSU team that was shell shocked and basically going through the motions as the game wore on. The lead grew to 12-2 in the eighth. It would be hard to say Robinson was under a lot of stress, and he mainly throws a changeup-slider combo that Whitting says does not stress his arm that much anyway. But 191 pitches is 191 pitches. A draft eligible junior, though, Robinson was not drafted over the weekend. So college may be it for him. Mainieri does make a concession with the fatigue envelope when a pitcher is not viewed as a future pro.
In addition, Southeastern Louisiana threw its ace Andro Cutura 118 pitches in the Southland Conference Tournament opener on May 21 and brought him back after two days rest for 47 more pitches in the SLC Tournament title game that put the Lions in their first NCAA postseason in two decades. Cutura then started the NCAA Regional at LSU on May 30 and threw 98 pitches. That’s 263 pitches in 10 days. Cutura does have a pro future. Minnesota took him in the seventh round Friday.
Whether or not Cutura’s or Robinson’s pitching envelope will be damaged in the short or long term because of their perceived overuse in the 2014 postseason is not known, though. It is also not known if Poche’s future arm health has been guaranteed by him not pitching on short rest. Arm injuries in baseball are as much a mystery now as they have always been. There is more pitcher fatigue awareness and pitcher coddling now than ever, and yet lately there has been a rash of Tommy John (ulnar collateral ligament elbow) surgeries.
Some believe, sooner or later, virtually all pitchers will have some type of surgery. And hopefully coaches have progressed from the old days because of more fatigue awareness. Youth and high school coaches for the most part have been worse than college and pro coaches in this area. But former Texas coach Cliff Gustafson had a reputation for ruining arms. So did former LSU coach Skip Bertman early in his career, particularly concerning Russell Springer, who pitched from 1987-89. I know. I did the stories.
Springer had some arm issues after college, but Bertman must not have ruined him too much. He pitched for nearly two decades in the Majors.
Again, arm injuries remain a mystery.
But Mainieri doesn’t care. He will err on the side of caution. He will remove any hint of accusation concerning his program, even it continues to cost him trips to Omaha. In 2000 and 2001 while Notre Dame’s coach, Mainieri lost in NCAA Regional championship games after surviving the losers’ bracket. He could have brought a starter back on short rest and didn’t. His opponent did, and he stayed home like this year. Mainieri did not get to Omaha with the Irish until 2002. And he did it on his terms as he did at LSU in 2008, in 2009 when he won it all and in 2013.
Had Mainieri tweaked his militant stance on bringing back pitchers in the postseason just a bit, he may be off to Omaha now. But one has to admire him tremendously for going above and beyond with care for his pitchers.
“I do not want the reputation of someone who overuses pitchers,” Mainieri said emphatically. “I just won’t do it.”
It is not why he doesn’t do it, but it surely can and does help in recruiting. Mainieri can tell any pitchers’ parents as or more truthfully than any coach in the country that he will not risk their son’s arm no matter what. Of course, trips to Omaha help in recruiting, too.
Mainieri really does it his way for just one reason.
“I was raised that way,” he said.