By Trey Mongrue
On a temperate Friday night in early April, LSU pitcher Aaron Nola was fresh off of another banner outing as he pitched eight shutout innings in which he allowed just two hits and struck out 10 batters in the Tigers’ 3-0 win over Mississippi State.
With heavy rain forecasted for the following day, head coach Paul Mainieri ordered his players to head to the right field corner to unroll the tarp and cover the infield. That is except for Nola, who was busy answering questions from the media about his latest stellar performance.
As the team raced by Nola and a throng of surrounding reporters to get the tarp, a sarcastic voice was heard in the distance.
“Hey, keep your head up Nola, you’ll get ‘em next time.”
That voice belonged to Kurt McCune in what was just his latest, and funniest, contribution to the Tigers.
“He’s a jokester,” said Nola of his fellow pitcher. “He’s always in the locker room cracking jokes. That’s something on a team that you definitely need to keep everyone loose.”
But on top of being the team’s resident jester, McCune has provided quite a bit more than jokes throughout his four-year collegiate career. The LSU faithful will have its chance to thank him this weekend when McCune – along with Sean McMullen, Christian Ibarra and Nate Fury – is honored in the Tigers’ regular season home finale against Alabama.
What makes it special for McCune is that, of the four seniors, he is the only one who has spent all four years at LSU.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet,” said McCune about the finality of his LSU career. “These seasons are so long, so I don’t really feel like my time is running out just yet.”
This season, McCune has served as one of Mainieri’s more frequently chosen arms out of the LSU bullpen in which his 25 appearances is second only to the 27 made by junior Joe Broussard. McCune has, at times throughout the year, served as LSU’s closer, setup man and long reliever.
It just adds to already heavy résumé that also includes stints as a midweek starter and a spot in the weekend rotation.
Coming to LSU as an undrafted signee and little-fan fare after a couple of First Team All-State season at Destrehan High School, Mainieri could not be more proud at the type of player and person McCune has become.
“I think Kurt is just a wonderful kid,” Mainieri said. “He has done whatever we have asked him to do. This year he has done a good job in the role that we have had him in.”
McCune’s first LSU appearance came on February 20th, 2011 and it’s a date that he will not soon forget.
Getting the Sunday start with the Tigers looking to sweep Wake Forest to open the season, the then-freshman, pitching in front of more than 7,000 fans, recorded 16 outs before allowing a one-out single in the sixth inning to Demon Deacons’ second baseman Mark Rhine.
McCune made it through the inning without surrendering a run and gave way to the bullpen for the final three innings in the Tiger’s 9-1 win. His final line that day: 6 innings pitched, one hit, no runs, no walks and seven strikeouts.
He still can’t quite wrap his head around exactly how he was able to accomplish that.
“Still to this day, I find it amazing how I was able to do that,” he said. “I gave max effort and was able to locate my spots, I still have trouble doing that now.”
While he did not quite have another start like that for the rest of the 2011 of season, he still finished with the best record earned run average (3.31) and best record (7-3) in a starting rotation that included senior Ben Alsup and eventual first-round pick Kevin Gausman.
“It was definitely exciting,” McCune recalls of that first season. “Being a starting pitcher as a freshman, I got to dive right into it.”
However, the 89.2 innings he pitched that season was the most he had ever thrown in his career. Because of that Mainieri thought it would be best if McCune took a few months off to rest his arm instead of reporting to a summer baseball league.
A winter bout with mononucleosis set the tone for a sophomore season that saw his innings total cut in half from a season before and a spot in the weekend rotation lost to Ryan Eades and Nola.
Eager to bounce back as a junior, McCune’s plans were put on hold once again when he suffered a stress fracture in his back during preseason practices, which kept him inactive for nearly two months of the season.
“It was a humbling experience,” he explained. “ I fell to the bottom of the depth chart as far as pitchers and it really taught me about adversity and how to fight through stuff.”
He returned in early April and that fighting spirit showed as he quickly became a trusted reliever out of the bullpen and even earned a weekend start against South Carolina – his first SEC start since his freshmen season.
“His freshman year, he obviously was tremendous that season, but his next two years he got off to some bad starts because of injuries and illnesses,” Mainieri said of McCune. “He has always fought through it and that’s all you can ask.”
Now as a senior, McCune doesn’t much care what his role is.
“I don’t want to define myself as something and then come out one day and not have that role,” he said. “I just like pitching and I like winning.”
While he admits that it the Senior Day festivities may eventually get to him, right now, the reason McCune is excited about this upcoming series with the Crimson Tide is because LSU is in a dogfight for the SEC Western Division title and every game matters at this point.
But even in the midst of in a chaotic SEC race, he has had some time to figure out how much being a Tiger has meant to him.
“This has all just been a huge learning experience for me,” he said. “It’s something that I am definitely going to carry with me after I finish playing here.”