LSU’s Kurt McCune relishes new role as closer

Kurt McCune is enjoying this new closer role.

Why?

“You can rear back and let it rip,” LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said.

“I’m having a blast,” a smiling McCune said moments later.

McCune, a starter or middle reliever in the past, has moved into the position of being LSU’s closer.

He has closed, indeed.

Sure, it’s just two ninth-inning appearances, but McCune has allowed one hit, struck out two and faced just seven batters in his pair of game-securing outings against UNO and Southeastern Louisiana.

No. 8 LSU (4-0) heads into this weekend’s three-game slate at Alex Box Stadium, starting with Friday’s 7 p.m. matchup against Virginia Tech (1-1), with less to worry about in the bullpen — partly because of McCune.

The cloud of uncertainty hovering over the pen this preseason is still there, but it’s not as dark. Aside from Brady Domangue’s ugly opening act last Saturday, the LSU bullpen has allowed five hits and no runs in more than 12 innings. They’ve struck out 14 and walked three.

A four-game sample is a small one, yes. But for a team that lost its top five relievers, including school record-tying closer Chris Cotton, it’s a resounding start.

“That’s taking so much pressure off everybody else when you’ve got quality guys coming in, one after another, that all can do the job,” starter Cody Glenn said. “It’s pretty relieving.”

No pun intended.

Junior Joe Broussard, freshman Parker Bugg and senior Nate Fury have emerged as the go-to relievers, but it’s far too early to cement the order. Henri Faucheux, Alden Cartwright, Hunter Devall and Zac Person are all in the mix.

And Domangue? Mainieri hasn’t given up on the former LSU-Eunice star. He’s expected to see some time Sunday against Texas Southern.

Mainieri plans to use all of his pitchers again this weekend. He’ll start Aaron Nola on Friday, Kyle Bouman on Saturday and freshman Jared Poché on Sunday.

Decisions on their pitch counts have not been made, but Nola could go past the sixth inning, the coach said.

Mainieri insists his offense — LSU hasn’t eclipsed the seven-run mark — will come around. But his bullpen? And the closer? Those were things keeping him up at night, he said.

He’s resting much easier now with McCune and crew impressing over four games.

McCune, a Norco native who began at LSU as a weekend starter his freshman year, has had a bumpy journey. Injuries turned a promising college starting career into a roller-coaster ride.

He’s fully healthy now. And he’s enjoying his newest role.

“It’s definitely a lot more intense,” McCune said of closing. “I’m trying to throw it a lot harder when I’m closing. When you’re a starter, you’ve got to go multiple innings. I kind of like being able to go out there and throw the ball hard.”

McCune was expected to be the closer last year — and then he fractured his lower back while stretching hours before the 2013 season opener.

Cotton took the role, and he finished with 16 saves in leading LSU to the No. 1 ranking and a College World Series appearance.

Now it’s back to McCune. So far, so good, said pitching coach Alan Dunn. McCune threw 25 pitches in his two innings, inducing outs to three batters on the first or second pitch.

“Guy’s filling up the strike zone, pitching very aggressively, getting the outs early in counts,” Dunn said. “He’s got a grasp for what that role is.”

A new pitch is lending a hand. McCune learned a split-finger fastball about a year and a half ago, and the pitch is just starting to take shape.

The split-finger appears to hitters as a regular fastball — until it dives toward the plate at the end. He threw it three times on opening night, two of which induced swinging strike 3s.

The split-finger has developed into McCune’s “out” pitch, Mainieri said. Meanwhile, McCune is embracing his new job.

“I love closing,” he said.