Poché to start series opener

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU's Jared Poche will start either Friday or Saturday's game in the Baton Rouge Regional, but coach Paul Mainieri hasn't decided which one. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU's Jared Poche will start either Friday or Saturday's game in the Baton Rouge Regional, but coach Paul Mainieri hasn't decided which one.

Davey Clement sees Jared Poché being interviewed on his television and shakes his head.

“I told him, ‘We have something in common: we interview the same,’” said Clement, Poché’s former high school coach at Lutcher. “I know I’m a terrible speaker. He’s not the best either.”

Three months of serving as LSU’s No. 2 starting pitcher haven’t changed much. Poché, a freshman, still has reporters digging for comments.

A small-talking, sometimes-mumbling and monotone country boy from the bayou — that’s Jared Poché.

“He just,” Clement said, “doesn’t change.”

That’s across the board. From dealing with the media to hurling on the mound, Poché is an unusually steady rookie who seems not to be bothered by … anything.

It’s just what is needed down a key stretch for a guy who’ll have to slip into the biggest shoes yet.

With LSU battling for postseason position in a bunched Southeastern Conference, Poché slides into the No. 1 starting pitcher spot for this week, next week and — heck — maybe the next. Aaron Nola remains LSU’s ace, but recent scheduling blips have pushed Poché into the leadoff role on the mound.

His start Thursday at Auburn, the opener of the final regular season series of the year, is the first of what could be a slew of important No. 1 nods down the stretch.

“He’s going to be pitching the opening game of the last weekend of the season,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s going to be pitching the opening game of the SEC tournament. He could be pitching the opening game of the (NCAA) regional.

“He’s got to be ready for the challenge,” the coach ended.

It starts Thursday.

LSU (37-14-1, 14-11-1) travels to play Auburn (28-25, 10-17) in sixth place in the SEC standings and with a realistic shot to win the SEC West or at least finish in the top four of the standings, a result key to hosting an NCAA regional.

The Tigers need help from some other teams to do either, but they won’t happen without a series win or, even, sweep on the Plains.

The first game is the big one. Auburn is throwing its No. 1, senior Dillon Ortman (9-3, 2.01), a guy who has four of Auburn’s 10 SEC wins. The Tigers’ starters fall off from there, seeing as No. 2 Keegan Thompson is out for the year.

It won’t be Poché first time facing an opponent’s No. 1 pitcher. Teams have altered their rotation against LSU to avoid matching up their best arm against Nola.

In at least three of nine series, that’s been the case.

“I know he was excited about it,” Mainieri said, “when he played Mississippi State and they gerrymandered their rotation and matched Ross Mitchell against him. He took that personal. He was very determined. I’m sure he’ll feel the same way.”

He may have taken it personally. He may have been determined.

But you can’t tell.

Told he could be pitching the first game of the SEC tournament and an NCAA regional, Poché responded flatly, “That’d be cool.”

Poché has nearly completed his freshman season, a year that can be described as a success — with some tough luck breaks.

A star in high school who led Lutcher to the state title with sparkling stats, Poché’s numbers this season are solid, but his wins don’t necessarily match them.

He’s allowed just two earned runs in his last three starts, and LSU lost each game. The Tigers scored a total of six runs in those three games. LSU is 3-5 in SEC games that Poché starts.

There have been highlights — his three-hit win over 8.2 innings against Georgia and his three-hit seven innings against Mitchell and Mississippi State.

The lowlights have all come on the road.

In SEC games at home, Poché has allowed six earned runs, walked four and struck out 19. On the road: 12 earned runs, 15 walks, nine strikeouts.

The explanation isn’t easy.

“I don’t really think he’s throwing that poorly on the road,” Mainieri said. “Not one game have I said, ‘Boy, he really had a tough time.’ I haven’t seen that one time out of him.”

Said Clement: “It’s a growing pain. Knowing him as a competitor, I don’t think he wants to admit that it’s a growing pain. In time, with experience, he’ll be fine.”

Will he be more sociable with experience? Well, that’s another matter.

After all, Poché’s experiencing life in the big city as the No. 2 pitcher for a top-10 program.

Clement text messages with him often. Poché is enjoying his time in Baton Rouge. He’s juggling class work with baseball. He even missed one midweek road game this season because he had a big test the next day.

Through it all, Poché’s not changing, Clement said.

“He’s a special guy,” the coach said, “because he’s the No. 2 starter for LSU and if he was playing for for a Division III school in Alaska he’d be the same guy.”