Down went the pitch chart. On went the cleats. Out went Kurt McCune to grab a baseball to loosen up his right arm.
After sitting for hours, logging the Tiger pitches on Saturday in preparation for his presumed Sunday start, McCune was approached by LSU coach Paul Mainieri who asked if he was ready to pitch.
“I just said to myself, ‘there is no way I’m not going to give our team the best chance to win this game tonight,’” Mainieri said Tuesday. “I just felt if we’re going to win this game, we have to put our best available pitcher on the mound, and I thought that was Kurt McCune.”
The lanky junior right hander assured his head coach he was ready to pitch and proceeded to fire two dominant innings against the Crimson Tide, picking up his third win of the season, first in conference play.
After missing the first 32 games of the season due to a stress fracture in his lower back, McCune has eased into action courtesy of some short stints against midweek competition. Saturday night he took the ball for one do or die inning and another to preserve the win.
Fastball popping and breaking ball biting, McCune overmatched Alabama.
“I felt like I was throwing hard,” McCune said. “I was really trying to focus on down angle a lot. My arm slot was directly over the top which I think is going to help me throughout the rest of the year.”
With four SEC weekends left, McCune has the look of a pitcher ready to eat up crucial innings whether they come in the weekend rotation or out of the bullpen as was the case in Alabama. McCune hasn’t yet thrown more than three innings in any game this year, but two seasons ago he toed the rubber for the Tigers on Friday nights in the league.
Last season, McCune sputtered and eventually slid far enough down the pecking order that innings became few and far between. The dip from Friday starter to sparingly used reserve can be shocking.
“Last year was a very humbling year for (McCune),” Mainieri said. “I felt for the kid. I love him. I think he’s just a great competitor. His freshman year he was as valuable a player as we had on our team. You know, last year was a struggle for him. He struggled with his breaking ball. He didn’t really have a good change up.”
After a summer off and an unexpected break to begin the season, McCune has emerged a refreshed, refocused pitcher. Mainieri saw enough in previous outings to schedule McCune for Sunday’s start in Tuscaloosa. Due to the 16 inning marathon on Saturday, that didn’t happen, but there is still time.
“Mark this day on your calendar that I told you this, because somewhere down the road you’re going to see Kurt McCune get the ball in a very pivotal game during the season. I don’t know when it’ll happen, but it’ll happen,” Mainieri said
Twice this weekend LSU freshman Alex Bregman dug into the box with a runner in scoring position and was issued a free pass to first base.
Both times Tiger senior Raph Rhymes stepped to the plate and promptly hit into an inning ending double play. Rhymes, who led the country in hitting a season ago, carries a .327 batting average after 41 games. Most college players would love to boast a number that high, but it obviously didn’t strike fear in Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard’s heart. Especially not with Bregman hitting .414 and Mason Katz behind Rhymes at .397 with 13 home runs.
So Mainieri decided this week to flip Katz and Rhymes in the order, allowing Katz to protect Bregman more closely and to prevent Rhymes, a ground ball hitter by trade, from ending meaningful innings with sharply hit double play balls.
By hitting more line drives and fly balls, Katz is less likely to derail scoring opportunities than Rhymes.
“Coach did this last year,” Katz said. “I was hitting third and Raph was hitting fourth, and he switched us and Raph took off and hit .431. I expect similar results this year. Maybe it’ll get us back to the way we were before last weekend.”
MOORE PLAYING TIME
Expect sophomore Tyler Moore in the lineup this week as LSU entertains Tulane and South Carolina.
The Baton Rouge product has only started 11 of the 41 games this season, but Paul Mainieri is looking for a little more offensive punch this week, and he’ll turn to Moore for the production.
“I going to play Tyler Moore (Wednesday) night, I’m not sure where,” Mainieri said. “Tyler Moore has done some good things for our program, he just hasn’t hit in the clutch enough this year to warrant him being an everyday player, and I’ve told him that.”
Moore has performed admirably from a statistical standpoint, batting .302 without a single strikeout in 53 at bats. Most of those numbers were accumulated without the benefit of consistent playing time, but Mainieri insinuated Tuesday that Moore will get an expended look this week.
“I’m excited about it,” Moore said. “I’m planning on taking advantage of it and helping this team out.”
Moore helped the team Saturday with a pinch hit, two out double that spurred on a game-winning rally. The lefty has spent most of his time at LSU facing right handed pitchers, but South Carolina will start three left handers this weekend. Moore didn’t seem concerned.
“It’s just part of it,” Moore said. “You just go in there and compete.”