Tigers bullpen takes lead in close games
As the third-ranked LSU baseball team has climbed the Southeastern Conference standings, the Tigers have made a habit of pulling out close games in the late innings.
The rallies have often ended with clutch hits by offensive stars. They have almost always started with gutty efforts by an increasingly dependable bullpen.
“Our hitters have been real hot in the late innings,” LSU reliever Chris Cotton said. “It’s been key for us keeping it in the zeroes, and then (the hitters) come out and finish the game for us.”
Where would the Tigers be without the likes of Joe Broussard, Kurt McCune, Nick Goody, Chris Cotton, Brent Bonvillain, Nick Rumbelow and Joey Bourgeois? Quite likely, they would not be tied with South Carolina atop the SEC standings — and four games up in the West race — as they enter a three-game home series with Vanderbilt beginning Friday night at Alex Box Stadium.
In addition to its 13-4 mark in games decided by one run, LSU is 29-1 when leading after six innings and 32-0 when leading after eight.
“We’ve got guys (in the bullpen) who have done a good job of recognizing who they are and what pitches they can make in certain situations, and they believe in that and pitch with conviction,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “When you’ve put guys in roles throughout the year and you’ve seen them succeed, it helps you as a coach in making that decision time and again.”
In an extra-innings victory over Ole Miss on Friday night, the LSU bullpen bought its offense some time by holding the Rebels scoreless the final 5.2 innings.
The relievers threw three scoreless innings in a comeback victory April 27 against Georgia, then returned the following night to throw four scoreless innings in another heart-stopping win.
“The best thing a coach can do is know his own players’ abilities and limitations,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Put them in situations where they have the best chance to be successful, and maybe hide those limitations a little bit. If we can continue to do that and continue to get guys into the right situation, I think our bullpen can be very effective down the stretch.”
The group is as diverse as it is reliable.
For lefty relief, the Tigers can turn to Cotton or Bonvillain. For a nasty, ankle-breaking curveball, they can trot out Rumbelow.
If the Tigers need someone to eat innings, they can go with one of two pitchers — McKune and Bourgeois — who were top-of-the-rotation starters for LSU earlier in their careers.
All of it sets the table for Goody, who has rung up nine saves in his first season as the LSU closer.
Although he has often made the job look easy, the junior right-hander’s path to finishing SEC foes was far less direct than a trot from the bullpen.
Goody played shortstop at University High in Orlando, Fla., where he pitched only single-digit innings.
He signed with State College of Florida to play the infield, but was converted into a pitcher midway through his freshman season.
Only this year was he asked to close games.
“Pitching is pitching,” Goody said. “It just happens to be that you’re going out there in the late innings.”
As vital as a clutch closer is to any team’s chances, the Tigers know they will need a bullpen top-to-bottom reliable to reach the heights they hope.
The proof was written all over Omaha the past two years.
South Carolina did a number on College World Series opponents that seemingly had better starting pitching. Key was a bullpen that accounted for three of the Gamecocks’ six wins in 2010 and three of the five last season.
“If the starter only throws six or seven innings, it’s good to know your bullpen can come in there and shut (the opponent) out the next two or three,” Cotton said.
Or however long it takes the offense to mount a rally.