Nerves or not, by 7:00 pm Thursday Lucas Laster will be on the Mississippi State mound warming up to start against South Carolina. Not just start a SEC game, one to show nationally on ESPNU, but the entire series. All are brand-new experiences for the senior lefthander.
And it comes not a day too soon, here mid-way of his final college campaign.
“It means a lot to me,” Laster said Wednesday following his final tune-up. “It’s something that growing up as a little kid I’ve always wanted to throw in the SEC against some good ball clubs. I finally get that opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity presented for multiple reasons. Not least, that Mississippi State has drawn the early-opening series for this weekend. As early as last weekend Coach John Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson were already thinking about how to handle a Thursday-through-Saturday series. The easiest route would be just moving everyone up a day.
Instead, “We didn’t want to short-rest one of our guys,” Cohen said today. This will keep RHP Preston Brown presumably on Friday, though Cohen also said that call won’t get made until after watching Gamecock hitters for a game.
Laster for his part had gotten used to midweek work, and to success. In his six such starts he is 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA, and given any offensive support at all in the one loss he would be unbeaten right now. That defeat came a week ago in Pearl with 6.2 innings; one week after Laster went a complete-game in beating Eastern Illinois at home.
Based on results and record, “I think he’s one of our best three guys right now,” Cohen said. “Lucas has been very competitive for us so we think he deserves this opportunity for Thursday night.”
Laster got the word while State was salvaging a split from Auburn in game-three. “They told me on Sunday to be ready. When I didn’t go in the game Sunday for relief I made sure I got a good bullpen in.” Since then he’s worked more practice sessions, just like any rotation Dog.
“So I think I’ll be right on track to hopefully go out and pitch like I’m capable of pitching.”
Which has been very good. Laster has just six walks in 37.1 innings, with 28 strikeouts. Supported or not he’s been just plain consistent, another aspect that earned this chance to test his arm and experience in a slot normally reserved for ‘aces’. Laster did throw a little last SEC season; just 10.1 total innings in three relief outings.
Now, here he is about to start a conference game and series alike. One might think as soon as he got the Sunday word Laster would have immediately called up South Carolina stats and scouting reports. Not so. In fact, as of Wednesday Laster hadn’t even looked once at the Gamecocks.
“We’re going to do that tonight. I will definitely be in there for a little while.”
What he will see is a South Carolina offense not much more stat-strong than Mississippi State, based on the nine conference games both have played. Instead USC (20-9, 5-4 SEC) is dominated by their moundsmen. The conference results are a bit behind their norm, because after sweeping Kentucky at home South Carolina dropped a series at Missouri—which now looks much more respectable—and lost twice at home to Georgia.
They bring one of the best one/two pitching punches in the league if not land, in Wil Crowe (3-2, 2.84) and Jack Wynkoop (4-2, 2.30). South Carolina is not listing a game-three starter, either. The Ws and Ls mean less about this pair than other numbers; such as 95 combined strikeouts against just 20 walks. That is a good reflection of the entire staff in fact, with 261 strikeouts against 102 walks and a 2.71 ERA.
The two starters have also allowed just 15 extra-base hits in their 91.1 innings and a dozen of those are doubles. USC has Taylor Widener (1-2, 3.45, seven saves) and other relievers ready for fast duty out of the pen.
Nine games is a risky sample size, made more so by the disparity in opponents. But on the face of it these are offensive equals in SEC play, USC batting .248 and State .240. Oddly given the differences in ball parks the home runs are nearly equal too, State with eight (though six came at cozy Kentucky) to USC’s seven. And the Bulldogs have twice as many doubles, 16 to eight.
Their downfall though is what happens after hits, extra-base or otherwise. State has just 37 runs in nine league games. Only Auburn has scored less, which didn’t keep the visiting Tigers from taking the series at State. For the full season 273 Dogs have been stranded. Just pushing 10% of those across on-average would have this team among and maybe ahead of the Division and league leaders.
Instead State is sputtering at 3-6 SEC and 19-12 overall following a 8-7, 11-inning loss at South Alabama. The game Laster would normally have pitched, too. A fast 5-0 lead was wasted quickly along with lots of late-game baserunners, allowing the Jaguars to had State another painful setback to both record and RPI.
“It was a combination of things,” Cohen said of the loss. He pointed to a missed double-play that would have halted the Jaguars’ first comeback, or struggles by LHP Daniel Brown who was making his first start. The relief staff failed to hold lead or tie alike, and walks made USA’s win a little easier. The coach did see signs of progress at the plate.
“I’m proud of our offensive guys, they were more aggressive,” Cohen said. “I thought they got the barrel in a good position the whole game. The best swings we took all night were innings we didn’t score any runs. Reid Humphreys hit the hardest ball I’ve seen this entire year by anybody, he almost knocked the pitcher’s glove off his hand. We had a ton of line-drives to the outfield. With a little bit of good fortune we could have scored 12, 15 runs. But we didn’t.”
If there was another positive coming out of the midweek loss, the Bulldogs don’t seem to let such things rattle them as much as was the case earlier. Besides, Laster said, “If we’d won we still needed to regroup to regroup for Thursday. So we have to take it one game at a time.”
South Carolina also played Tuesday, and on the road. They won at Citadel but had the short turnaround to leave home again. Either way, “You have to rise to the challenge, and you’ve got to keep competing,” Cohen said.
The immediate challenge falls upon Laster, who gets that long-sought chance as a SEC starter. The level goes up a league of course, but Laster’s gameplan is the same as has made him a midweek winner.
“Working the fastball to both sides to the plate has always been a strong point for me. This year I’ve been able to locate the off-speed as well, in and out of the zone. I feel that’s really helped.”