How LSU baseball assembled the pitching staff that carries its championship hopes

6 days ago The Advocate 0

Five years ago, LSU identified a high school freshman named Cole Henry. As the coaching staff looked at other College World Series teams, it noticed successful pitching staffs logged hundreds of strikeouts. 

The Tigers wanted more power arms, pitchers who paired electric fastballs with developable secondary pitches. It sought recruits who threw strikes. Henry’s fastball reached 94 mph by his sophomore year. 

“We are looking for those guys that can go out and dominate on the mound,” recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain said. “That’s where it all starts these days.”

Though Henry missed most of his junior season with a stress fracture in his right arm, his fastball still topped 90 mph when he returned to the travel circuit. Henry’s curveball dove through the air, and he continued to hone his changeup. Future LSU left fielder Drew Bianco watched him pitch. 

“This guy ain’t coming to LSU,” Bianco thought.

The Cubs considered drafting Henry in the supplemental round of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft, but Henry set his asking price at $3.5 million. The Cubs didn’t match the number. Later selected in the 38th round, Henry decided to come to LSU.

During the same recruiting cycle, LSU targeted right-handers Landon Marceaux and Jaden Hill. Though talented pitchers filled the draft pool, increasing the possibility high school seniors might fall into later rounds, LSU knew professional teams laden with money might pluck away their signees.

This is what LSU's starting lineup will look like on opening night vs. Indiana

Coach Paul Mainieri set LSU’s opening day lineup, but he expects it will change throughout the first series and further into the season as LSU searches for its best combination of players. 

LSU needed luck as major league teams looked for the same kind of pitchers the Tigers wanted. It hoped to get one player out of Henry, Marceaux and Hill. It landed all of them.

Entering their sophomore years at LSU, the coveted trio has become the focal point of the team. LSU thought they might emerge as stars last season, but arm injuries affected all of them. Hill made two starts. Marceaux pitched twice over one six-week stretch. Henry missed the final month of the regular season.

Now healthy, the three sophomores, along with redshirt sophomore AJ Labas and redshirt junior Eric Walker, could lead one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball. And with LSU replacing the majority of the starting lineup, its postseason destination rests on their success.

“Once we go out there and prove it,” Henry said, “I think we’re going to be unbeatable.”

Earlier this week, those five pitchers sat on stools, lined up next to one another inside the LSU locker room. They quietly looked at a photographer, smiling when asked. Above their heads, the words “Program of Excellence” stretched across the wall.

LSU found Marceaux as an eighth-grader in Destrehan. He did not throw 90 mph then, but he controlled three pitches with precise command, and his poise exceeded his age. Marceaux searched for perfection.

After watching Marceaux for a year, LSU offered him a scholarship. He soon committed. Then came Henry and Hill, all verbal commitments before their senior year of high school. Marceaux later stepped out of a summer class to turn down $1.5 million from the Kansas City Royals.

Ed Orgeron to throw ceremonial first pitch when LSU baseball begins season

Ed Orgeron will throw the first pitch before LSU baseball begins its season on Friday night inside Alex Box Stadium.

When LSU hosted the NCAA super regional last summer, Henry and Marceaux started Games 1 and 2, the first time coach Paul Mainieri had started two freshman pitchers in a super regional during his tenure.

While Henry and Marceaux moved to the front of LSU’s starting rotation, Hill and Labas sat out with injuries. After two promising weekend starts, Hill strained the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right arm. He did not pitch in another game-like setting until the end of fall practice.

Labas missed the year after he underwent shoulder surgery. When Labas returned, he threw with more velocity. A starter his freshman season, he pitched better than anyone during fall practice.

As they managed their injuries and recoveries last year, the pitchers often discussed what worked during their rehab. Though Walker had returned after a year erased by Tommy John surgery, he struggled to regain his mechanics. The pitchers chatted between practices, leaning on each other for support. They strengthened their friendships.

Hill, who may have the best arm on the staff, had grown up playing football. He didn’t attend camps or showcases in high school. He never used a pitching coach. As Hill talked to his teammates, he learned more about baseball. He absorbed information on mechanics. 

“They may not know it, but I pick and choose things from them all the time,” Hill said. “I try to put that in my game.”

Marceaux leaned over.

“Is that not scary?” Marceaux said. “He’s one the most athletic people I’ve ever seen in my life. Saying he doesn’t know as much about the game as we do and that he’s picking our brains, just imagine what he could do this year.”

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On the eve of its first game, LSU must imagine all of it. Discussions about potential have surrounded the pitchers for months. The staff projects as one of the best in the country, but the players said none of the preseason chatter matters. They heard it last year when LSU began the season ranked No. 1 and failed to make the College World Series. Potential causes disappointment when it goes unreached.

“We know what we have,” Walker said, “but talking about it isn’t going to help.”

For LSU to contend for its seventh national championship, its pitchers know they must maximize their talent. Henry, Marceaux and Labas have formed the weekend rotation. Walker may give LSU the best midweek starter in the Southeastern Conference. Hill will pitch from the bullpen as LSU manages his schedule.

All five of them have shown flashes of brilliance at different points in their careers. They have managed injuries and disappointment. The idea of them now reaching their potential together in one season gives LSU hope.

“These five guys are the dudes,” Marceaux said.

But on Thursday night, as they do every week, the entire pitching staff gathered in one place, this time at senior Matthew Beck’s house. They have called the ritual “Staff Night” for years, long before this group came together. The pitchers ate and relaxed after their final preseason practice, having fun together before the season begins. They understood they cannot accomplish anything alone.