Up to last Wednesday, Chad Jones had not thrown a bullpen session since his senior year of high school. Two years removed from the mound, he found himself on the hill for LSU in the top of the eighth with a 7-4 lead.
With men on first and second and no outs, Jones faced three consecutive Auburn left-handers, ironically also the middle of the Tiger order.
“You roll the dice and see if it works,” Mainieri said. “And, you know how you define a good move? It worked.”
After giving up a single to load the bases, the LSU southpaw struck out the Auburn four- and five-hole hitters. The performance made way for closer Matty Ott, seeing Jones leave to a standing ovation from the Alex Box crowd.
“It felt amazing, because I was never really expecting this,” Jones said with a laugh after Sunday’s win. “I was never nervous, because I knew what was at stake. The crowd had me pumped up, so it was a great feeling getting the job done.”
Surprisingly, the move was as unexpected to the Tiger skipper.
“I did not recruit Chad as a pitcher, so I did not really know what he could do,” Mainieri said. “[Pitching coach] David Grewe has been begging me for a month to look at him, so when he got back from football we sat him down and talked and then we got some looks at what he could do.
“To be honest, Thursday was the first time I had ever seen him pitch.”
A 13th round pick by the Houston Astros coming out of Southern Lab, Jones, who had not been with the baseball team since departing for spring football in mid-March, said that last Tuesday brought the news.
“Right when I got back from football they talked to me about it, and I was not surprised, because I knew I could pitch,” Jones said with a smile. “I told them that I had pitched all throughout high school.
“Of course, it is tough to transition. But coach Grewe worked me day in and day out, so I was looking forward to this.”
While he earned Class A All-State honors behind his left-handed fastball, which clocked out at 91 MPH his senior season, it was a combination of off-speed pitches that carried the LSU squad on Sunday.
“I struck the first batter out on a slider,” Jones said. “People did not know I could throw like that, but the crowd had me pumped up. I threw high 80s in high school, so throwing 92 today was a big improvement.
“This is obviously the biggest crowd I have pitched in front of, so it was amazing for me,” added Jones. “I felt the wave, and you can feel that the eyes are on you. But after coach ran up to me in the dugout and told me to go in, I just got loose and did what I had to do.”
Mainieri said that the performance draws parallels to two-sport athlete Jeff Samardzija at Notre Dame.
Mainieri coached the right-hander during his stint with the Irish, pointing out that the juggling act between the mound and the football field is similar to Jones’ situation with the Tigers.
“I just wish we could have developed Chad early like we did Jeff,” Mainieri said. “It would actually probably have been easier for him to balance with football, because you don’t have to be out at baseball all the time if you are a pitcher.”
The football ties, of course, went a long way in the decision to send a player two years removed from the mound into the thick of a Southeastern Conference game.
“I figured Chad has been under bright lights more than anyone on the team,” Mainieri said. “He plays in front of 100,000 people and then millions on television every weekend, so he was not going to be afraid.”
With the Tiger staff constantly in search of relief from the pen, the call for Jones is one that is sure to come more often.
“He has a good slider, so we just have to make sure we get to a count where we can use it,” Mainieri said. “He can throw his fastball over the plate, and I feel like he brings an added dimension.
“He does not have much endurance right now, but maybe that will grow.”
No matter the future for Jones on the mound, the Tiger skipper will not soon forget his weekend performance.
“After the inning everybody was congratulating Chad in the dugout, and he ran up to me and thanked me for letting him pitch,” Mainieri said with a laugh. “It was the first time that any player had ever thanked me for playing him, so it was a good moment.”