OMAHA, Nebraska - For a moment there, one may have thought LSU coach Paul Mainieri was suffering a senior moment when he replaced a rolling Jared Poche in the ninth inning Saturday night.
As in he forgot he was at the College World Series and was suddenly getting pitchers some work in a win-meaningless, mid-week game.
Why else would Mainieri, 59, take Poche out after he had just struck out two in a row with a 5-4 lead over Florida State on opening night of the CWS at TD Ameritrade Park? Poche was not tired. He had only pitched two and two-thirds innings, allowing just two hits and no runs with no walks, as the lefty relieved right-handed starter Alex Lange in the seventh inning with no outs and a runner on first.
Poche did just throw a wild pitch on the third strike to pinch-hitter Kyle Cavanaugh in the ninth, and that allowed Matt Henderson to get into scoring position at second, which pushed Mainieri a bit to a pitching change. Henderson had led the ninth off with a single.
FSU lead-off hitter Taylor Walls - one of the nation's leaders in walks with 65 at the time and two on the night - was due up. He was 1-for-1 with a double off Lange in the third, and he scored that inning on No. 2 hitter Dylan Busby's single for a 3-1 lead and had three runs scored. But Poche had just gotten Walls to ground out to shortstop Kramer Robertson in the seventh. Then Poche got Busby to bounce into a third base-first base-third base double play.
So, why not leave Poche in?
Because Mainieri, like most baseball coaches, was a couple batters ahead. He had fire balling freshman right-hander Zack Watson, who along with freshman starter Eric Walker has been the top two or three pitchers on the staff lately, primed and ready in the bullpen. All inning and probably earlier, Mainieri was thinking of a possible Watson-Busby, right-hander vs. right-hander duel in the ninth, though the ESPN announcers were saying Mainieri would go to right-handed closer Hunter Newman.
Newman would not be best following Poche as they throw about the same speed - high 80s, sometimes in the low 90s.
Busby, meanwhile, was the Seminoles' best hitter coming into the game at .315 with 14 home runs and 62 RBIs. His two-run home run off Lange in the first put his team up 2-0. Hess throws in the mid-90s, which would be a significant change in speed from Poche, plus it's typically to the pitcher's advantage when he throws from the same side from which the hitter bats. But Mainieri did not want a stud like Busby to be the first batter Hess faced.
So Mainieri put in Hess to face Walls, a switch hitter, to get "the jitters out," Mainieri said. He also knew Walls would switch from right-handed to left-handed to face the right-handed Hess. And there was that runner in scoring position.
"I just thought that the time was right at that point to bring in Hess, and turn Walls around to left-handed," Mainieri said. "Walls is a pretty good hitter both ways, but I thought he had more power right-handed."
Sounds good, but then Hess walked Walls, and now the go-ahead run was on base. But Mainieri did not feel bad about that because he nibbled off the plate as directed by pitching coach Alan Dunn and walked him on five pitches.
"I really liked the match-up of Hess against Busby," he said. "I just thought he was ready to go against Busby."
And Busby struck out for the first time in the game on a 2-ball, 2-strike breaking ball that froze him. Hess struck him out looking, and it was over.
Win to Poche, who relieved for just the third time in his four-year career. Save to Hess, who has two now as he closed instead of usual closer Newman. And gutsy, out of the box decision winner to Mainieri, whose team got a win even though its starter and ace Lange did not throw well as he walked four and allowed seven hits and four earned runs.
Mainieri's best World Series pitching decision, though, may have come earlier when he decided to replace Poche as the No. 2 starter with Walker. He has actually been leaning toward this for some time, and finally pulled the trigger. Walker (8-1, 3.46 ERA) will start for the No. 4 seeded Tigers (49-17) against No. 1 seed Oregon State (55-4) at 6 p.m. Monday on ESPN in the College World Series.
This makes a lot of sense for two reasons. No. 1, Walker may be LSU's best pitcher right now. Three of his last four starts have lasted eight innings with one run on one hit and three walks, seven and two-thirds innings with one run on five hits and one walk, and eight innings with zero runs on seven hits and zero walks. Poche has not thrown more than six innings in his last four starts and gave up nine earned runs and 17 hits over that span. Not bad, but not as good as Walker, who has walked only 23 all season in 93 and two-thirds innings. Lange has walked 44 in in 117 innings, while Poche has walked 36 in 100 innings.
And LSU needs a left-hander like Poche out of the bullpen now. The only other option is freshman Nick Bush (1-1, 3.54 ERA), who Mainieri said is not a "very situational" reliever yet. He also has not pitched since the SEC Tournament.
So in the end, Mainieri is throwing his hottest and best walks-to-innings starter in Walker, who has won three of his last four decisions. His closer Hunter Newman (1-1, 1.07 ERA, 10 saves), who is the only LSU pitcher other than Lange to have pitched the last time the Tigers went to Omaha in 2015, will be available as will Hess, who is the more classic closer as far as the heat and possessed demeanor. There is also sophomore right-hander Caleb Gilbert, who has pitched as well as anyone of late. Over his last seven appearances through 16 and two-thirds innings, he has allowed one earned run on nine hits.
If LSU wins Monday, it does not play again until Friday when Lange will start again. And if he can pitch like the good Lange again, LSU will then advance to the national championship three-game series beginning a week from Monday. If LSU loses Monday, it plays in a loser's bracket game on Wednesday and will have Poche to start for that game and maybe Gilbert in relief along with everyone else.
It's all happening. In Omaha sometimes, you're starters are your relievers and your relievers are your starters. Pitching guru Skip Bertman followed that formula to the 1997 national title as he had top starters Doug Thompson and Patrick Coogan start and relieve. That will likely be the case with Poche for the rest of this CWS.
Poche, who has 36 career wins as a starter, doesn't mind that his 38th overall win that tied the school career record came out of the bullpen. If needed, he'll do it again.
"Definitely didn't think it was going to happen with me coming out of the bullpen," Poche said Saturday night. "But I think it made it a little more exciting."
Poche also didn't think he'd be coming out of the game after striking out two straight. But that's Mainieri. He has a method, and it's usually not madness.
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