Senior pitcher gains grip on setup job
Kurt McCune feels like he’s young again.
Younger is more like it. After all, McCune turned 22 in December.
But for a college baseball player, that’s old.
McCune is the veteran, the old man who has been through more highs and lows and held more roles than most on the LSU baseball team.
“Diverse” — that’s how the senior describes his career.
Following an unexpected pair of outings in the series win at Ole Miss last weekend, McCune’s roller coaster of a career is back on the up track — like his days as a freshman All-America hurler.
And — oh, boy — doesn’t it feel good? Just like old times.
“I still haven’t lost that excitement that I had my freshman year pitching in big games,” he said. “I’m glad I’m able to still feel that.”
The feeling came surging back after a pair of saves in Oxford. With normal closer Joe Broussard spent, McCune entered to close wins Thursday and Saturday, securing LSU’s third straight Southeastern Conference series victory.
McCune had a perfect 13th inning in a 4-3 win Thursday. On Saturday, he retired the final batter with two on base and LSU leading by two.
“That was big,” Broussard said, “for the whole staff.”
For McCune, it was just another direction change in a career full of them. It may have cemented his all-important role for this team as the Tigers prepare to host Tennessee in a three-game series starting Friday.
“He’s the setup guy to Broussard,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
McCune is used to new roles and ups and downs.
A Norco native and former Destrehan High standout, he’s a tall, lanky right-hander whose career began with him evolving into LSU’s Friday night starter in 2011. He led the team that season with a 7-3 record and an ERA of 3.31. He was named a Freshman All-American by Baseball America.
This was a high in that roller-coaster ride.
“He was amazing,” Mainieri said.
“I think my freshman year, I came in and I was kind of stupid,” McCune said. “I just threw strikes as hard as I couldm and it worked for me.”
So what happened? Mainieri said McCune never fully recovered from a bout of mononucleosis he suffered before the 2012 season.
He slipped down the pecking order of pitchers, getting surpassed by guys like Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades.
McCune entered 2013 as the top candidate to be LSU’s closer. Hours before the season opener, he fractured a vertebra in his lower back while stretching.
He entered this season as a candidate to close. Broussard took over the role by mid-March, and McCune allowed four hits each in stints against Vanderbilt and Georgia.
These were the lows.
“Baseball is a real humbling sport,” Broussard said. “There’s ups and downs you’ve got to deal with. Right now, he’s throwing the ball well, so I’m pretty sure he’s feeling good about himself.”
He is. Like old times.
“I’m pretty confident after this weekend, just knowing I can go up there and throw my splitter for a strike for sure,” he said.
McCune learned a split-finger fastball about two years ago, and the pitch is just starting to take shape. To hitters, it looks like a regular fastball — until it dives toward the plate at the end.
He used the pitch to induce the game-ending ground out Saturday from pinch hitter Holt Perdzock. Perdzock hit an easy grounder to second, and Conner Hale rifled it to first base to begin the celebration.
It got McCune out of a jam. He had walked a batter and allowed an unusual single with one out in that ninth inning.
Austin Anderson cracked a grounder back to McCune. The ball hit off the pitcher’s backside and bounded toward shortstop.
“I’d show you the bruise, but it’s on an inappropriate part of my body,” he said, smiling.
At most, McCune has two months remaining in his college career. So there are plenty more highs and lows and role changes to be had.
Mainieri and his coaches plan to continue giving McCune chances. McCune plans to continue battling — just like that ninth inning Saturday.
“Got to put your butt out there on the line sometimes, you know,” he said with a smile.