Making their pitch, Tigers armed, ready for regional

Published 8:00 am Thursday, May 30, 2024

Jay Johnson didn’t need the Southeastern Conference Tournament to believe he had one of the best 1-2 combos in the country with pitchers Gage Jump and Luke Holman.

That’s good for starters.

“I think we are as good at the front of the game for two games as anybody,” Johnson said. “I really believe that … can’t wait to flip the ball to those guys again.”

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But he went home from the conference tournament also feeling much better about his bullpen, which might be the key to how far the Tigers will advance in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

“I think it was a real positive that came out of the SEC Tournament,” Johnson said.

The Tigers (40-21), the No. 2 seed in the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Regional on the campus of North Carolina, open the tournament against No. 3 seed Wofford (41-18) at 11 a.m. Friday.

Johnson hasn’t announced a starter for the opening game, and it’s not unheard of higher seeds trying to sneak past the regional opener without using their ace or, in LSU’s case, aces.

But more than likely he’ll stick with left-hander Gabe Jump (6-1, 3.42 ERA) in the opener, with right-hander Luke Holman (9-2, 2.54) for the second game.

That’s been a constant all season, and they combined to give up one run on four hits in the 13 innings of their two starts in the SEC Tournament.

It’s the rest, beyond closer Griffin Herring (4-1, 1.88, 6 Svs) who have been more a roll of the dice.

Never mind the bullpen.

Even in a best-case scenario, LSU will need at least a third starter to get through the regional. Suffer a loss and you’re looking at needing one or two more to come back through the losers bracket.

It was all hands on deck in the marathon SEC Tournament as the Tigers used 15 pitchers through five games, 10 of whom pitched more than once.

Johnson probably won’t have that luxury in North Carolina. The SEC allows 30-man rosters for its tournament. The NCAA tournament allows 27.

But, Johnson said, “I think you’ll see us do a little bit more of that this week. I like doing it anyway because I like when everybody contributes.

“We’re starting to round into form a little bit closer with more guys, and it gives us more options,” Johnson said. “Like, we can get guys in and out for short spurts and I’m feeling better about their niche for certain types of hitters.”

Herring has been the most reliable reliever all year, along with Gavin Guidry, Will Hellmers, Nate Ackenhausen and, of late, Christian Little.

Little had to leave Sunday’s SEC championship game against Tennessee with a tight back, but Johnson said he thinks he will be fine for the weekend.

Johnson noted that even the two scoring-fest victories against South Carolina, 11-10 and 12-11, the bullpen did its job in the end.

“Two games where we gave up a lot of runs,” Johnson said. “But when needed to get zeros in the back half of those games, we absolutely did.”

In the Thursday game, LSU trailed 10-7 with three to play but shut out the Gamecocks over the final three to set up the rally.

The Tigers were down 8-0 early in Saturday’s crazy game but allowed one (controversial) run over the final four innings that set the stage for a memorable walk-off victor.

Ackenhausen could be a candidate as an extra starter as he opened the Tennessee game and struck out six of the nine batters he faced before being pulled to avoid overworking him.

Other possibilities might be Javen Coleman and Thatcher Hurd, who also started games in Hoover, Alabama.

Hurd, was a star of the Tigers’ postseason national championship run last year, but struggled much of this season.

“I really liked what I saw from Thatcher,” catcher Alex Milazzo said Sunday. “That’s one of the biggest takeaways from this SEC Tournament for me, how good he looked after how he’s battled through the season. Getting him where he’s at right now is a big addition to our staff.”