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LSU Pitching Hitting its Stride As Tigers Shift Focus To Second Straight Home SEC Series

Relief pitching continues to be a strength of this team as Tigers make all the right moves against Missouri

There's a component to pitching that Jay Johnson and pitching coach Jason Kelly have mastered in recent weeks. It's something that only comes from knowing your players very well and what spots best fits each individual.

For hardly the first time this season against Missouri, LSU found itself in a precarious position with its starting pitchers. On Friday and Saturday, the Tigers were forced to replace Blake Money by the third inning and Samuel Dutton two outs into the second inning. 

As a result, Johnson and Kelly have relied on the bullpen to get the team out of sticky situations and for the better part of the last month, most of the moves have been sublime. The players are ready for practically any scenario out of the bullpen because of the way Johnson and Kelly have changed pitchers.

It could be a two on, two out situation in the second inning and Bryce Collins comes in and forces an inning ending strikeout. Or when Collins gets into trouble three innings later, Eric Reyzelman can retire two of three batters with multiple runners on base to save another run from crossing home. 

Those are just a few of the many examples of pitchers on this staff being able to pick one another up this past weekend and Johnson couldn't have more proud of the effort given by the bullpen in a series sweep of Missouri. 

"When you have eight guys with an ERA under 3.50 that you're bringing out of the bullpen it can be hard to sometimes crack into that. It's really competitive for those innings right now," Johnson said.

"Those guys are doing it as a team and I like that they're not always in the same order and they're picking each other up and one guy bails out the guy before."

Reyzelman, Riley Cooper, Paul Gervase, Devin Fontenot and Grant Taylor have been fixtures to this bullpen all season long and haver produced a number of clutch, game saving performances. The relief pitching is oftentimes an overlooked but extremely important component to a team having prolonged success come postseason time. 

Johnson isn't afraid to put these players in high energy situations because they keep responding, no matter at what point in the game they're inserted. Just take Cooper for example, the left handed reliever who Johnson recruited from Arizona to Baton Rouge this season. 

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In his last 12 appearances on the mound, Cooper has allowed just three earned runs with 14 strikeouts and just one walk.

"The value of the tipping point in the game or the leverage situations, he's just got the right competitiveness, demeanor and pitch ability to make it difficult on opponents," Johnson said of Cooper. "He's not afraid of anything or anybody and that's important.

"We've gotten way more out of Sam Dutton then I would've thought, Grant Taylor I think he's a star in the making. We've put him in some high pressure situations and he's really responded."

But it's not just the five mentioned who have provided a spark in recent weeks. Lefty Jacob Hasty is just the latest player to assert his name into the fold as a contributor the team can count on as SEC play moves along. Hasty was integral in the Tigers pulling out a win Friday evening, going 2.2 innings of scoreless baseball with four strikeouts in relief of Blake Money. 

"Jacob out of the spotlight but did the right things in terms of working and improving, feeding his mind with the right things. He certainly has plenty of talent and there's a lot of things that he can do to help us so he'll be an enormous part of what we're doing."

It also helps when a veteran ace pitcher like Ma'Khail Hilliard can consistently get into the sixth and seventh inning in a winning effort, helping save the big bullpen bullets for later in the weekend. That's been what Johnson believes to be the most important, unrealized component of the Tigers' recent pitching success.

"When's the last time LSU swept a team when the Saturday starter was out in the third and the Sunday starter was out in the second? Him [Hilliard] being able to extend is really allowing us to set up the weekend properly," Johnson said. 

There's undoubtedly momentum brewing with this staff that doesn't have the arm talent that many other staffs in the SEC have. But what this group does have plenty of is competitive spirit, confidence and the uncanny ability to consistently pick each other up.

"I think we grew a little bit as a team, I'm just proud of them for being steady because in this league it's hard to do that," Johnson said. "There are programs that are faces of college baseball that are struggling with that so I think these guys are doing a great job of keeping their head down and focusing on what's next."