As season inches closer, LSU’s still seeking bullpen help

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn ponders the answer to a question during the LSU baseball team's media day.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn ponders the answer to a question during the LSU baseball team's media day.

Kurt McCune calls it “a little pop.”

Fully dressed in uniform hours before LSU’s season opener last year, McCune bent down to stretch.

Pop.

He spent the next two months rehabbing a fracture in his lower back, a lingering problem area for the tall, lanky pitcher.

He went from being the closer poised for a big junior year to a hobbled guy who had trouble opening doors.

Two weeks from the first anniversary of that injury, McCune finds himself in a similar but even more important position: He’s a player LSU plans to rely on in a bullpen that lost, arguably, its top five relievers from 2013.

The focus 14 days before the season opener rests, no, not strictly on McCune, but a pen that’s searching to replace those go-to relievers from a year ago.

“When you’re in college baseball, obviously, through the draft or guys graduating, it’s a turnover,” said pitching coach Alan Dunn, discussing his unproven bullpen, a leading topic at the baseball team’s media day Friday. “You have guys that have been in the program that have to come back and take that next step to be guys that you can count on. That’s where we are right now.”

McCune is one of those guys. So is junior Joe Broussard, a Gretna native who missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nate Fury is in the mix, too, among the rare veterans in the bullpen.

Newbies like Brady Domanque and Kyle Bouman, junior college transfers, and freshman Parker Bugg are expected to help, too. After all, there’s a lot to replace.

LSU lost its top five relievers in innings pitched and its top four in appearances. They include school record-tying closer Chris Cotton and his 16 saves; Joey Bourgeois and his 32 strikeouts in 32 innings; and Brent Bonvillain and his 50 innings and solid 2.70 ERA.

In all, LSU lost a combined 206 innings from its relievers and 170 appearances.

What’s returning?

About 83 innings and 60 appearances.

“A lot of new faces,” McCune said.

Every relief role is up for grabs among a hodgepodge of hurlers. That includes the role of closer.

It’s something that “keeps me up at night,” coach Paul Mainieri said.

“The closer is my biggest concern,” he said. “I know in this league, if you can’t finish games, you can’t win.”

So who steps into Cotton’s shoes?

Mainieri signed Domanque for the job, but he “hasn’t looked great” in practice, the coach said.

McCune and Broussard are other options. The duo may have the most experience of any LSU relievers, and Mainieri called them “the keys” to the pitching staff.

McCune, Broussard and Domanque have all overcome injury to arrive at this point.

Domanque missed his true freshman season at Southeastern Louisiana because of herniated disks in his lower back. He’s healthy now and broke ERA and strikeout records the past two years at LSU-Eunice.

Domanque “is the bulldog” of the pitching staff, ace Aaron Nola said.

“When he’s on the mound, he’s fiery,” shortstop Alex Bregman said. “He’ll strike you out and tell you something after he strikes you out.”

Broussard might see the most relief innings.

“Probably next to Nola,” Mainieri said, “(Broussard) has the best stuff of anybody on our team in terms of velocity and break in the ball.”

Broussard came on late in his sophomore season of 2012. He struck out 45 in 41 innings.

His junior season never got started. He spent it rehabbing from Tommy John surgery that he had in the summer of 2012. Now he takes every throw as if it’s his last.

“Every pitch,” he said, “is my last bullet.”

And then there’s McCune, who started his career at LSU as a freshman weekend starter. He led the staff with a 7-3 record and 3.31 ERA in 2011.

A sophomore slump followed in part, Mainieri said, because he never recovered from mononucleosis he contracted just before the 2012 season.

Last year, he returned from the back injury in April and started four games, appearing in 11 and finishing with a 2.66 ERA.

Days away from the start of his senior year, McCune knows what’s at stake.

“This is,” he said, “my last shot.”