When sophomore pitcher Alex Lange steps on the mound to open the season against the University of Cincinnati next week, things will be different.
Lange’s devastating curveball that led him to becoming the first LSU freshman to strike out 100 batters will still be in his arsenal but still, things will be different. For starters, or lack thereof, the roster boasts zero returning starters in the infield and just one in the outfield.
Then there’s his counterpart behind the plate, switch-hitting sophomore catcher Michael Papierski, who’s replacing the Detroit Tigers’ fourth round pick, Kade Scivicque.
The youth behind the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year probably won’t affect a pitcher of his caliber. Sophomore slumps tend to get thrown out the window when a player finishes 12-0 with a 1.97 earned run average during his freshman campaign.
Even though Lange only gave up 87 hits in 114 innings last season, he still felt there were a couple areas of his game he needed to clean up this offseason. He didn’t add any new pitches to his repertoire but he did spend most of the offseason improving his changeup that’ll complement a mid to low 90-mph fastball.
Ask Lange about his fastball and he’ll tell you there’s one thing you can always work on no matter how good you are.
“If someone says their fastball command is perfect, they’re crazy,” Lange said. “There’s always room to improve fastball command.”
Another thing that’ll be different when the 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound righty takes the mound this season is his mindset. Lange said that when he joined the Tigers he was just looking to earn a spot on the travel squad and pitch a few innings here and there.
“I came in trying to just get some innings,” Lange said. “I just wanted to pitch, I wanted to make the travel squad. Those were my goals. I had no idea it was going to turn into what it did.”
Lange’s performance last season made him a player who the LSU team looked to for leadership on and off the field. He had to readjust his mindset after he got the nod to start the first Saturday evening game of the season last year against Kansas. Lange allowed just two hits and no runs in an efficient five innings, throwing 71 pitches.
Lange said he was able to carry the confidence from his first collegiate start with him to the rest of the season.
“I was confident in my abilities, my teammates and this team going against Kansas,” Lange said. “We’re going to have the same confidence this year against Cincinnati. We’re going out there and we’re expecting to win.”
Even if Lange’s aforementioned 1.97 ERA “skyrockets” to let’s say — 2.0 — the Tigers can count on his left hand man, junior Jared Poche’. Poche’ and Lange combined for 223.1 total innings, holding opponents to an impressive .230 batting average. Lange and Poche’ played travel ball together before coming to LSU.
During his prep career Lange was a little chunkier according to his former travel ball teammate, Poche’. Poche’ noted the 30 pounds Lange lost since his prep career as one of the many ways he’s improved.
“He definitely understands different ways to get guys out and not just throwing his big curveball,” Poche’ said. “He’s learned how to pitch and get guys out any way he can.”
One thing that’s remained constant Lange’s whole career is his tenacity. Lange would probably treat game three of a rock, paper, scissors match the same as the rubber match of an SEC series.
“He’s competitive with anything he does,” Poche’ said. “He’ll race you to do anything, he wants to beat you in pretty much anything whether it’s baseball, or if it has nothing to do with baseball.
That competitive spirit played a key role in the Tigers run to the College World Series last year. LSU finished the season with a 54 – 12 record after being defeated by Texas Christian University twice in Omaha, Nebraska.
Some of the younger players on the team ask the veteran players what playing in Omaha was like, but Lange tells them it’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself.
“[The younger players] ask about Omaha and it’s kind of hard to explain,” Lange said. “24,000 people there to watch you play baseball and kids screaming your name trying to get a ball during batting practice really is a lot of fun. It’s something in the back of their minds that they want to experience.”
LSU is ranked No. 5 in the 2016 USA Today Baseball Coaches poll joining No. 1 Florida, No. 3 Vanderbilt and No. 4 Texas A&M. Despite the rugged competition atop the SEC, pitching coach Alan Dunn doesn’t think Lange needs to make any drastic changes to his game to give the Tigers a chance to win more ballgames.
“He doesn’t have to be anything different than who he was last year, just fine tune here and there,” Dunn said. “That’s baseball, you do that your whole career. From the time you play, you make adjustments and figure out what you have to do to be at your A game. He did a great job of doing that.”
LSU opens the 2016 baseball season Feb. 19 against Cincinnati at Alex Box Stadium.
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Photo courtesy of LSU Sports Information.