LSU has always had elite college level pitchers who have gone on to have long careers as professionals. Aaron Nola, Louis Coleman, Kevin Gausman, Alex Lange and more recently Zack Hess and Cole Henry are just a few names who have been high draft picks or made it to the MLB.
But this crop of pitchers in 2021 could be the deepest staff of them all according to senior pitcher Matthew Beck, who's been around the highest of highs and lowest of lows for the last four years. Beck enters his fifth season as a pitcher for the purple and gold after the NCAA granted all spring athletes an extra year of eligibility following the cancellation of the 2020 season.
Beck, as well as senior Devin Fontenot jumped at the opportunity to return for another season after their names weren't called in the MLB Draft. Now the veteran pitchers hope to lead this team to Omaha for the first time in four years and capture a national championship after a 12-year drought.
"I'm the only one on this team who's been to Omaha," Beck said. "So I've used the experience I've gained and used that to motivate, inspire and consistently reiterate the level of commitment it takes to get to Omaha."
Without getting ahead of themselves, there's a reason for this team to have optimism of reaching Omaha again, mainly because of the deep pitching staff, which consists of 20 players who Paul Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn will need to mange. Let's start with the big guns.
The Tigers will roll out a three man starting rotation of Jaden Hill, Landon Marceaux and AJ Labas in three weeks and those three figure to be the starters for the entire season. Hill racked up many preseason accolades, including All-American nods by DI College Baseball.
Now a junior with the program, Hill is coming off a season he spent in the bullpen but fired 11.2 scoreless innings and 17 strikeouts because of his blazing fastball which hit 98 mph on multiple occasions. This offseason for Hill has been about adding muscle and learning how to become a starting pitcher who can go seven or eight innings a night.
"It's exciting for all of the work that I've put in," Hill said. "I had a lot of adversity but I was able to learn and grow from it. Before the season I reached out to Anthony Ranaudo who used to pitch here and we got together, started working out more and helped me figure out a lot more about my body, the physical side of things and I took an extra step in my game."
Mainieri mentioned the team will likely start the season with a few restrictions on Hill in terms of the workload that's asked of him but have no doubt those will be lifted as he adjusts to his new role.
"When I first started the process, I thought it was about conserving energy to last longer but that's not what it's really about," Hill said. "I just needed to build stamina, work out extra hard and train differently. Really focused on long tossing a lot. If I conserve, I'm not getting hitters out so my goal is to give 110% every single pitch."
Marceaux and Labas will have no such restrictions as the juniors figure to carry their Saturday and Sunday starting roles from a season ago.
Both are premeir SEC caliber starters with Labas executing a 3.53 ERA in the shortened 2020 season with 20 strikeouts and 10 earned runs in 25 innings pitched while Marceaux appeared in four games with a 2.70 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23.1 innings pitched.
It's a veteran starting group who should be able to carry the team on most nights, even in an SEC that's as loaded as it's ever been. Mainieri was so enamored with the level of pitching in the conference this season that he wouldn't be surprised if a third of the upcoming first round of the MLB draft is filled with SEC pitchers.
But at the end of the day the real strength of this pitching staff lies in the bullpen. We know that Fontenot will return to his role as the team's closer, a role he filled in beautifully in 2020 and earned him first team preseason All-American accolades.
In seven appearances as the closer, Fontenot allowed just one run with 17 strikeouts and a .90 ERA.
"I didn't feel like we accomplished everything that we wanted to accomplish here which is why I wanted to come back," Fontenot said. "I feel like there are some things I want to leave a legacy on so I want to be a big part of this team this year."
Returning veterans in Beck, Ma'Khail Hilliard, Trent Vietmeier and Aaron George figure to be a part of the rotation as well and push for that mid week starter role. All have had experience starting games in the past and will be vital components to the Tigers' success from Hilliard's fast moving curveball to Vietmeier and Beck's power.
There are a few freshmen who Mainieri said to keep an eye on as well, most notably right handers Ty Floyd, Will Hellmers and Garrett Edwards.
"They were probably not the most highly touted guys we brought in but they've just pitched," Mainieri said. "Both of them [Hellmers and Edwards] have three pitches they can control, they throw just hard enough to be competitive with the fastball but because they have good offspeed pitches, it makes the fastball play a little bit harder. We've got some good young players who I'm not gonna be afraid to use. The more they play, the better they're gonna get."
This is a loaded staff and with 20 players who all could deserve playing time, figuring out the best rotations and bullpen construction will need to be done hastily in the non-conference and mid week outings. With any great team it has to start with the pitching and, at least on paper, the pitching is exemplary for the Tigers this season.