Kurt McCune returns as LSU plays Southern

The college baseball season is more than halfway over, but Tuesday night will seem like opening night for LSU right-hander Kurt McCune.

He’ll make his season debut when he starts against Southern at 7 p.m. in the Wally Pontiff Jr. Foundation Classic at Zephyr Field in Metairie.

McCune was sidelined during the preseason because of stress fractures in two vertebrae in his back.

“At first it was tough, but I’ve been working hard, trying to get back in shape and get healthy,” McCune said. “Right now, I feel as healthy as I’ve ever been. I’m throwing hard. I’m throwing with conviction. I’m really excited about how I’m throwing right now.

“I haven’t thrown in a real game for a while, but I’ve been throwing against a lot of hitters, and I feel like I’m ready to compete against another team.”

McCune faced hitters for the first time in practice Thursday and, when he showed no ill effects, he had cleared his last hurdle.

“The live hitting actually got me a little more confident,” he said. “I thought I was locating very well, and my pitches were working very well for me. I threw a bullpen (Sunday), and a couple of guys were actually saying my curveball looks better than it did before my injury, so that was very comforting.”

Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said he’d like to get three good innings out of McCune. But when he told that to McCune, the junior said, “What if my pitch count is down? Can I throw more than that?”

“He wants to pitch,” Mainieri said. “He’s excited about getting out there. We’ll see how it plays out, but if he could give us about three good innings, I’d be happy.”

McCune was a weekend starter as a freshman two years ago and began last season as the Sunday starter before moving to the bullpen when Aaron Nola emerged. McCune was a candidate to be the closer this season before the injury.

That versatility could come in handy the rest of the season because Cody Glenn has been inconsistent as the Sunday starter, midweek starter Russell Reynolds will miss the rest of the season after shoulder surgery and the bullpen could use more depth.

“I really feel like we’re in need of one more good arm in that bullpen and perhaps another starting pitcher,” Mainieri said. “We don’t have an overabundance of great pitching and, if Kurt can step up and establish that he’s ready to help us, I think it will be a real shot in the arm for our team.”

McCune could be especially useful in postseason play, when the schedule can be compressed.

“The Southeastern Conference tournament could be a long week,” Mainieri said. “What happens if you get thrown into the losers’ bracket of an NCAA regional or the College World Series?”

McCune added a splitter during the offseason, which he’s eager to test in real games.

“My splitter is something I’m going to have to use to be effective in the SEC,” he said.

But first things first as McCune faces the Jaguars in his first appearance since he pitched a scoreless ninth in LSU’s 11-2 victory against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament last May. Mainieri said he plans to use lefty Brent Bonvillain after McCune, ideally getting three innings from each. LSU and Southern meet again at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Alex Box Stadium.

“If those two guys can give us six innings, we’ll see what the status is at that point,” Mainieri said. “Then we’ll have 12 innings left to get us through the midweek, and we’ll figure out how to get through it all.”

Jaguars coach Roger Cador is in the same predicament after agreeing to participate in the Pontiff Classic makeup after the Tigers’ matchup with Southern Miss was rained out last week and the schools couldn’t find a mutually agreeable replacement date.

Cador will miss both games against LSU. He’s slated to be in Milwaukee to meet with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig about Cador’s participation on a task force working to increase black athletes’ involvement in baseball. Assistant coach Fernando Puebla will coach in Cador’s absence.

Southern’s starter Tuesday will be freshman righty Camilo Godoy (0-2, 7.11 ERA), and the Wednesday starter will be senior lefty Zephan Rochelle (1-1, 8.53).

LSU, which has won 12 in a row and is off to the best start in school history at 30-2, ascended to the top spot in the Collegiate Baseball poll Monday.

“We’re going to have a big test this week with LSU — two games against the best team in the country, a frightening team that can do every aspect well,” Cador said. “But we’re going to have to go out there and play and try to get better.

“Either they’re going to have to elevate their game or be humiliated, and we’re going to ask some pitchers to pitch that haven’t pitched a lot for us. But it is what it is. Life goes on.”

Advocate sportswriter Scott Hotard contributed to this report.