LSU pitching staff talent helps justify preseason top ranking
The 2023 LSU baseball team holds all of the ingredients to justify their unanimous preseason top national ranking.
Of course, the pressure is now on for head coach Jay Johnson and his coaching staff to turn all the great grocery items into the feast everyone now expects once the season opens Feb. 17-19 with a series versus Western Michigan at Alex Box.
The Tigers could make an argument that their 2023 pitching staff might be the best collection of arms the program has had in decades. In fact, the entire squad is so deep that they could field a competitive SEC team using non-starters.
The pitching staff is under the direction of new arrival Wes Johnson, who spent the previous three and a half seasons as the Minnesota Twins pitching coach. He left in the middle of the 2022 MLB campaign when the Twins were in first place in the AL Central. All indications are no one in MMinnesota wanted to see him depart.
The draw to LSU baseball was too strong for the former SEC pitching coach, according to Johnson (no relation to the LSU head coach).
“The biggest thing is I wanted to come back to a place that had some tradition, had some history, that had a phenomenal fan base,” the Sherwood, Arkansas native explained. “They wake up everyday chasing a National title, which is important and I wasn’t going to work for just anybody.”
Jay Johnson is widely lauded for beign able to attract a sitting MLB pitching coach to take the same role in Baton Rouge. Both men share a passion for player development.
“Jay has that. We both wake up everyday believing what we have to do to get a player better, to get a recruit, whatever it takes to get to a national title. (That) doesn’t mean you’re going to get one, but it puts you in a position to get one.”
The pitching staff has, collectively, all the pieces need to be a dominant group. The pitching rotation hasn’t been decided yet but a Friday ace has been identified.
No doubt that new arrival Paul Skenes, a transfer from Air Force, is the weekend series opener for the Tigers.
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound righthander is the table setter. He was a first team All American and the John Olerud Award winner as the nation’s best two-way player. He posted a .367 batting average with 24 HRs and 81 RBI during his three previous seasons.
Skenes, a top five overall draft prospect according to MLB.com, sat in the mid-to-high 90’s with his fastball in the fall. Although he has thrived at catcher and first baseball, his future in on the mound. Expect him to see some time as designated hitter this season while leading the LSU pitching staff.
Another immensely talented new comer, sophomore Thatcher Hurd (6-4, 200), is a transfer from UCLA who was on his way to an All-American campaign before a back issue derailed his 2022 season. His repertoire features a high-spin slider and fastball in the low 90’s. If healthy, he’s the ace of many college baseball staffs.
Ty Floyd (6-2, 194), a junior, fills the zone. His fastball is clocked in the low-to-mid 90’s while he also shows a quality off speed offering. He gets on the batter quickly and has improved his command.
Blake Money (6-7, 240) was the Friday starter early last season. He has improved his changeup and utilizes a fastball in the low 90’s. If he does not emerge as a weekend starter again, his talent should play up in a regular relief role.
Sophomore righty Grant Tyler (6-3, 220) has an impressive curve ball and low-90’s fastball. Last season, he entered a game against Florida in the fourth inning and held the Gators to four hits and two runs while striking out six to save the day for the Tigers.
Christian Little (6-4, 210), a right-handed sophomore transfer from Vanderbilt, has untapped potential. During his two-year stay with the ‘Dores, he appeared in 32 games and made 14 starts. His sharp-breaking curveball that he throws for strikes and a fastball that tops out at 95 have scouts eying his development.
Among pair of freshmen who are also drawing the most consideration for key roles is Chase Shores, a righty with imposing size (6-8, 250). He was the top ranked prep pitcher in Texas by Perfect Game. Griffin Herring (6-2, 197), the nation’s 28th ranked prep left-hander by Perfect Game, hits 90 with his fastball and a consistent slider. He works both sides of the plate well.
Wes Johnson’s past SEC stops as a pitching coach at Mississippi State and Arkansas mean his understands the in-season chalenges of the college game.
“The best pitching coach in the country at any level,” the LSU skipper Johnson said at the time of his hire. “The success he has had at the highest level of baseball speaks to Wes’ ability to communicate, teach, develop and motivate.”
Wes Johnson recognizes the unique skill set Skenes possesses. although he hesitates to make the proclamation that Skenes is the ace of the staff, the overall talent is well-noted publicly.
“I hasten to put ‘the Guy’ on anybody, but what makes him an elite player in college baseball is a lot of things. You have to have a little bit of talent, but then you have to understand what makes (Skenes) special every single day – your workouts, your sleep, your nutrition, your recovery and knowing how to use your stuff to attack hitters. You pour all of that in a funnel. Paul Skenes gets all of those.”
Determining a weekend rotation behind Skenes is a process that will continue early in the regular season.
“We’ll probably do things a little differently,” Wes Johnson explained. “Ty Floyd is throwing the ball exceptionally well. Grant Taylor is throwing very well, Thatcher Hurd is throwing very well. Christian Little is throwing exceptionally well and Blake Money has had some good sessions. Chase Shores and Griffin Herring will have opportunities. They bring a different look. They bring an ability to come in and help our team immediately.”
LSU’s second-year head coach stated his excitement about the potential of Chase Shores.
“You look at the physical skills, arm speed, the poise, the competitiveness, the readiness to make a contribution.”
Each contender for a weekend starting slot will have a chance to earn the coaching staff’s trust in some capacity.
“We’re going to do this through a matchup system and if they’re not starting, they are going to have a significant role in what we’re doing,” Wes Johnson added.
It’s not just pitching and hitting that wins championships. It requires team chemistry as well. The ’23 Tigers seem to possess those ingredients.
“Yes, absolutely, 100 peecent,” declared Wes Johnson. “I have been a big part of teams in Major League Baseball and College. All great teams included a locker room that was tight. You definitely have that feeling here.”
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…