Mike Bianco and I talked at length after one of the SLU games a week ago about what it's taken for this year's team to come around. We mainly focused on pitching.
Even though LSU and other programs in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s showed us you could win and win big with "gorilla ball," it always comes back to pitching. LSU had some great pitchers during their run of success.
Then the more potent bat was changed six or seven years ago, which made pitching and defense even more important – again – to the game as there were less home runs being produced in college baseball.
"It all starts on the mound," Bianco always says, as do most people who know baseball. For the Rebels this year, getting things situated on the mound became a challenge day in and day out.
Until lately that is, knock on wood. Tommy Baumgardner had such a great fall and preseason that it's a real shame he couldn't get it done as the Friday guy. But a month into the season, it was apparent the Rebels probably would have to go in another direction. It was obvious Baumgardner was disappointed, embarrassed even. But as a senior and a team leader, he accepted his role and has moved forward to help whenever he can.
Like last Tuesday when the personable left-hander started against the Southeastern Louisiana Lions and went five and a third innings before giving way to another former weekend starter, Cody Satterwhite, who went the final three and two-thirds to get the win.
There's your picture, right there. There's the season as far as the pitching staff goes in a nutshell. Baumgardner and Satterwhite, two of the three starters those first couple of weekends back in February, now pitching midweek or relief. And the other? Nick Hetland, who only started three games and appeared in only one other before battling a sore arm since.
It hasn't been easy to get the pitching situation straight for the Rebels this year, and Bianco was almost apologetic in our conversation last week.
"We've always known there was a lot of talent on this pitching staff," said Bianco, whose 26-15 Rebels host on Wednesday at 3 p.m. Louisiana-Monroe, which was 12-27 heading into a game today against Louisiana College. "It's disappointing as the head coach to say we were that wrong. We picked three and it didn't work out. Now three that weren't starters are now starters. But the good news is we're having some success now. The starters on the weekend are pitching well and have given us the opportunity to win."
No way is Bianco disappointed in his players. As a head coach, he would never say that. His disappointment comes, it seems, from the fact that they missed on who might be as productive on the mound in certain roles earlier in the season.
But to their credit, and you have to give them credit for this, they continued to work to put the pieces of the pitching puzzle together for this team.
I mean, let's face it. With guys like Mark Holliman and Matt Maloney on the staff, last year was almost a no-brainer on starters - at least a couple of them. But if you recall, it wasn't until halfway through the conference season that Eric Fowler solidified his spot as a weekend starter, along with Holliman and Maloney. And then if you needed another starter Stephen Head was always available and had the starting experience.
But this year was just going to be different with every one of those guys gone, along with Anthony Cupps, who also started. If you remember it was Cupps who pitched a masterful complete game in the Rebels' 14-1 romp over Florida in the first Saturday game in Hoover last May. And there was also reliever Brian Pettway who could be counted on to often close games.
So we all knew the pitching losses were huge. And, like the coaches, we all hoped it would be an easy thing to figure out their replacements. But it wasn't.
In the fall a number of new pitchers weren't available because they either left the program or were injured. Redshirt freshman RHP Justin Cryer and true freshman RHP Phillip Irwin both were lost for this spring to Tommy John surgery. Both are recovering and are still in the program.
Then came the early arm soreness this spring for weekend starter Hetland. The junior RHP continues to get more ready to pitch again in games, but to be truthful at this point there could be a possible medical redshirt since he appeared in only four games and a total of 13 innings. I don't know if that is within the guidelines for medical redshirt or not, nor whether that is what the coaches are thinking at this time. More speculation on my part than anything. But it will be May 1 next Monday, so that's a tough call if there's one to be made – both for this year's team and for Hetland's future.
Will Kline has begun to finally prove what the coaches have said all along about him, that he's got the stuff to be a strong one at this level.
I had a good feeling about Craig Rodriguez before the season. He didn't have a good fall, but he showed up a little better in the preseason. But there was something about his ability and his personality that I thought might lend itself to him being a big help to this team. That the junior lefty would be a Friday starter was actually more than I was thinking. But what a job he's done.
Maybe Lance Lynn has been the most consistent of them all when he moved to a weekend starter after closing some. The freshman star continues to improve and the Rebels obviously wouldn't be in the position they are without him.
Same for redshirt freshman Brett Bukvich. How impressive has he been shifting into that weekend starter role? Another who might not have been projected on the weekends, but after some solid midweek starts, here he is.
Garrett White hasn't quite been himself lately, at least not as he was earlier in the year. That happens sometimes as the season moves on. He'll be OK. Same for Cody Satterwhite, but there are signs he is coming back around. You can see it when he pitches. We can sense it when we talk to him. He's feeling better about himself.
Stoney Stone will help this team down the stretch just as he did last season. His relief work in the second game against LSU was impressive, once he settled down and got in a groove. And Jesse Simpson's career will be a fun one to follow as the crafty right-hander gets a lot of opportunities to help this year's team and Rebel teams in the future. What a great pickup he was at mid-year. Remember, he's only been here four months.
So for now, things appear to have settled down at least a bit as far as the staff goes. Pitchers are stepping up, coaches are finding their roles, and the Rebels are winning.
"Sometimes it's just like this," Bianco said of fitting all the pitching parts together this season. "It's one thing to have a Holliman returning to where you feel comfortable and you base the rest of the rotation around him. This year you're taking a reliever (Baumgardner) and making him the Friday night starter.
"You're making decisions. Guys perform. Guys don't perform. Guys step up. Guys don't step up. And then you have to remember that when you pitch well and only play four games a week at times, then you don't see as many pitchers. Like the Mayor's Trophy game, it's a 1-0 game. Then two Friday night games in a row (Auburn, South Carolina) we have a complete game starter (Rodriguez). I don't know if we've ever had that since I've been here."
There've been several aspects of this year's pitching staff that Bianco and company may not have had to deal with before. But a couple of things appear to be for certain: The coaches have certainly earned their pay this year trying to get it all in place. And the Rebels have some awfully talented pitchers, both for now and for the future.
Rebel pitching puzzle pieces begin to fit
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