LSU's pitching strategy designed to win championship series - not necessarily the opener

OMAHA, Nebraska - It's all come back to this.

It's all about the mid-week games in college baseball.

Two wins away from its first national championship since 2009, and LSU is pitching ... drum roll please ... spotlight at center stage .... he's walking to the mound ... RUSSELL REYNOLDS?

LSU coach Paul Mainieri has decided to start in the opening game of the College World Series best-of-three national championship series against Florida at 6 p.m. Monday on ESPN, none other than fifth-year senior Russell Reynolds, who is 1-1 on the season with an 8.59 earned run average.

Of the 16 pitchers listed on LSU's stat sheet with Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Eric Walker at the top, Reynolds is at No. 14 - a notch below Doug Norman, who has been out for the year nearly all year.

Reynolds has not started a game since 2015. He has not pitched more than an inning and two-thirds in a game since March 3 when he threw three. Still, in limited use and just 14 and two-thirds innings all year, he has managed to allow four home runs for sixth on the team.

His opponent - sophomore right-hander Brady Singer - is 8-5 with a 3.18 ERA and has allowed only five home runs in 123 and two-thirds innings.

"I really don't even know who we're going to start yet," Mainieri said Sunday after the CWS press conference before making his decision hours later. "Probably won't matter because it's going to be a mish-mash of guys."

Oh, so it's a mid-week game. The "won't matter" part drives that home. Mid-week games are something unique to college baseball. They are in-season exhibition games in which teams usually work out or practice those pitchers not quite ready for prime time on the weekends.

"We received a lot of criticism in our local area because we lost a lot of mid-week games this year, six," Mainieri said Sunday. "But what you do in those is you find out who you can count on and in what roles."

This has been when Reynolds has pitched most of his career. And Mainieri feels more comfortable with Reynolds since he is a fifth-year senior than one of his more talented freshman like a Todd Peterson, who may hyperventilate during the national anthem if he was the starter. He may be better coming in when things have calmed down.

And to Reynolds' credit, over his last one and two-thirds innings over three appearances, he has allowed zero runs on one hit that was not a homer with no walks and one strikeout for a 0.00 ERA.

This curious scenario has happened because LSU ace Alex Lange just pitched Friday night, throwing 115 pitches through seven and a third innings to beat No. 1 Oregon State, 3-1. He will not pitch until Wednesday. If he pitched Tuesday, he'd only have three days rest. He has never done that at LSU.

"And I don't know how effective he'd be," Mainieri said.

Poche could pitch Monday. He has not pitched since Wednesday and will have had four days rest. But Mainieri decided against that.

"Well, if we're going to do that with Lange, we might as well give Poche five days rest," he said. "So he's going to pitch on Tuesday."

Translation: Mainieri does not want to be tempted to or pressured to pitch Lange on Tuesday on three days rest if Poche should lose Monday. So, get the loss out of the way Monday, and go with the double barrel - Poche (12-3, 3.33 ERA, 39 career wins) and Lange (10-5, 2.97 ERA, 150 strikeouts in 124 innings).

It's almost like LSU doesn't want to win Monday so it can pitch Lange, unless a win presents itself Monday. When Reynolds walked off the mound Monday night against Oregon State after pitching the ninth, Lange walked up to him on the field and put his arm around him. Everyone thought that was the last we'd see of Reynolds.

Lange may put his arm around him Monday and say, "Hey, don't pitch too well. I want to pitch Wednesday for the national championship."

It's often not who is pitching, but when are they pitching. Even if the cost is a loss, it's better to pitch your best pitchers when they're at their best.

Former LSU coach and pitching guru Skip Bertman found himself in this lose-now-win-later pitching predicament in the 1993 College World Series. After winning the first two games with starter Mike Sirotka going nine and starter Brett Laxton going four and Scott Schultz two for the win, Bertman needed a bridge starter - like Reynolds - to get back to the front line.

"Hell, I can lose this game," he explained to reporters. Not being in an elimination game, he was playing with house money.

So he started mid-week starter Matt Chamberlain (6-3, 4.58 ERA), who led LSU with 10 homers allowed. He lasted four and a third, and LSU lost, 10-8, to Long Beach State. Then it was Sirotka's and Laxton's turns again over the next two games. Sirotka beat Long Beach State. Laxton beat Wichita State. And LSU had its second national title.  

"We're going to try to figure out how to get through the first two-thirds or seven innings of the game," Mainieri said. "If we can just get to the back end of the game and have a chance to win, we have Zack waiting there."

That would be Zack Hess, he of the 97 mph fastball who is LSU's newly crowned closer with three saves in the Tigers' five games here. But if LSU's not close, he's not pitching. That would be a waste unless LSU could win, so he can be saved for Tuesday and Wednesday. Winning will just not be as important on Monday for LSU as it will be Tuesday and Wednesday. It's that simple.

Florida is in a bit of a pickle with its pitchers, too, but it doesn't have enough days - barring rain. It just threw its ace - junior right-hander Alex Faedo (9-2, 2.26 ERA) - on Saturday for 115 pitches to beat TCU, 3-0, so it could get to this series. LSU is lucky Florida lost to TCU, 9-2, on Friday or else Faedo would be pitching Monday or Tuesday.

Too bad, the national championship game on Wednesday will not pit Lange and Faedo - a pair of first round draft choices two weeks ago by the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers, respectively. That happened on March 24 in Gainesville, Florida. Lange struck out seven in eight innings. Faedo fanned seven in seven innings. Florida won, 1-0.

LSU doesn't have regular starter Eric Walker (8-2, 3.48 ERA) as he suffered an arm injury last week and the freshman is done for the year. Florida has a pitcher with a similar arm fatigue injury - freshman right-handed reliever/spot starter Garrett Milchin (4-2, 3.29 ERA, 1 save). And Florida may not have Faedo at all unless he relieves Wednesday or pitches a few innings as the starter because he'd be throwing on just three days rest.

"It would be nice to play Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, so we have Faedo on four days' rest," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said Sunday. Sure what's another extra day here in Omaha. Go ahead and make it a complete two weeks.

He has a point, as yes, LSU could win a three-game series against Florida for the national championship and not have to face its ace. Why? Because Florida didn't start the CWS until June 18 with Faedo. LSU started on June 17 with Lange. That one day could make all the difference. Funny, the reason the World Series went to a three-game series in 2003 from the one title game was to avoid teams not having enough days to get back to its ace.

But it has been that kind of a fortunate World Series for LSU. Everything just keeps going its way. In its opening, 5-4 win here over Florida State, LSU had a runner score from first on a strikeout without an error and had another run score from first as three errors were made on the same single - two by the same outfielder. That's hard to do.

So is what No. 8 hitter Michael Papierski did Saturday. He home runs from both sides of the plate in a 6-1 win over No. 1 seed Oregon State to get the Tigers to the title series. He had never done that before - not even in Little League. No one had ever hit two home runs - from the same or either side - in the same CWS game in TD Ameritrade until then. And no one has hit homers from both sides of the plate at the CWS as least as far back as 1999. Before that, they didn't keep that stat. Beau Jordan, a .275 hitter, also hit just his second home run since April in that game against a team that LSU lost to 13-1 just last Monday.

LSU also got a fortunate foul ball ruling in the third inning of its 3-1 win over Oregon State on Friday. Lange escaped with just allowing one run and keeping a 2-1 lead instead of two or more and possibly pitching from behind.

So who knows? Maybe Russell Reynolds will be the right call. Just about everything else Mainieri has tried has worked, whether he expected it to or not. He did not think Caleb Gilbert, who was a mid-week starter most of the season after failing as a closer, to one-hit No. 1 Oregon State for seven innings with a season-high seven strikeouts in the 6-1 win Saturday. And that was fortunate, too, as Gilbert got so many balls called strikes by home plate umpire Greg Street that he freely admitted that some of his six looking strikeouts may have been gift wrapped.

"The ump was giving me a little bit here and there," he said.

The baseball gods have been giving LSU a little bit here and there, too, for more than a week.

"I wish I could tell you that I went to bed last night and dreamt that Caleb Gilbert would give us seven shutout innings on one-hit ball," Mainieri said Saturday. "And that Papierski was gong to launch one out on each side of the plate, and Beau was going to tomahawk a 97 mph fastball into the stands. But I'd be lying if I told you that."

LSU is just living right.

"A lot of steaks still to be eaten in this town," Mainieri said.

So right, it will start, not a second line pitcher, but a third line pitcher to open the College World Series national championship series tonight.

Who knows? Maybe Reynolds will toss a no-hitter. Considering LSU's good fortune lately, he may for two or three innings.

But if he struggles, remember, it’s only a mid-week game. And this weekend falls on a Tuesday and Wednesday with Poche and Lange as Florida prays for rain.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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