HOOVER, Ala. — For a long stretch this season, Caleb Gilbert had to wonder when he would pitch a significant game again.

We take you back to April 1 at Alex Box Stadium and the ninth inning of the Tigers’ series finale against Texas A&M. Gilbert, then LSU’s closer, served up a three-run home run to the Aggies’ Walker Pennington after giving up a run before.

The Tigers lost the game 4-3 and the series with shocking “What the ‘bleep’ just happened?” suddenness. Just as suddenly, Gilbert, who notched three saves and had surrendered just four earned runs in 11 appearances before that noxious ninth, lost his role in LSU’s bullpen as Hunter Newman returned from a back injury as he battled a previously undisclosed illness.

The loss was a huge setback for Gilbert and the Tigers, though it ultimately proved fatal for neither. LSU recovered to streak like a purple and gold blur through May and tie Florida for the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.

And Gilbert? He didn’t take the mound for four weeks. Even when he returned, it was mostly to eat up innings against the likes of Grambling, Lamar and at Alabama in that 11-inning game the Tigers took to sweep that series in Tuscaloosa.

Fast forward to Tuesday night and the surprising announcement that Todd Peterson, slated to start Wednesday’s SEC tournament opener against Missouri, had been suspended a game for violation of the ever-popular team rules. 

To whom would Mainieri turn? The plan coming in was to save ace Alex Lange for the winners’ bracket game Thursday, then counter with Jared Poche in the next. Both needed to be kept on track with proper rest and in their routines with next week’s NCAA regional in mind.

So Mainieri decided to go with Gilbert, a Hoover native pitching in at least his biggest game since blowing the A&M save. He delivered five encouraging innings in a 10-3 win over Missouri.

“I knew the key to the game would be the job Caleb Gilbert did for us,” Mainieri said. “He pitched his heart out, and I knew he would.”

On the face of it, the decision seemed a curious one. Gilbert had worked in four of LSU’s past five games entering the tournament, including two stints at Mississippi State last weekend and a two-inning starting turn May 9 against South Alabama (RPI Wednesday afternoon: 37).

How would Gilbert respond? The sophomore right-hander’s stuff is among the best on the team, with a fastball approaching Mach 1 (OK, 97 mph, but really fast) and an 89 mph slider.

That’s roughly as fast as Poche’s fastball.

Missouri, which LSU didn’t play in the regular season, came to Hoover as one of the lighter-hitting teams in the SEC: 10th with an average of .264. But Mizzou tore into Texas A&M in Tuesday’s single-elimination game to the tune of 12 runs on 11 hits in a 12-7 victory.

Early on, it looked like Missouri’s hot hitting would continue. After Gilbert retired the first four batters he faced, Mizzou left fielder Kameron Miser launched a home run to deep right field, no doubt startling some squirrels behind Hoover Metropolitan’s big scoreboard.

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Gilbert then gave up a single to Mizzou’s next batter, Kirby McGuire, but that was pretty much it. Benefiting from some stellar infield glove work by the likes of Josh Smith at third base, Kramer Robertson at shortstop and Cole Freeman at second, Gilbert retired 10 of the last 12 batters he faced. He didn’t return after a big squall plunged the game into an 81-minute rain delay in the bottom of the fifth, but by then he’d done enough to stake LSU to a commanding 5-1 lead.

“It was awesome,” Gilbert said. “I always love coming back to the SEC tournament. It was a special thing for me, growing up going to all the (tournament) games.

“The nerves weren’t there. I could just go out there and attack hitters and give our team the best chance to win.”

The question to ask now is how does Gilbert factor into LSU’s NCAA tournament plans? Mainieri said he hasn’t thought it out that far, but before his suspension, you’d have figured that Peterson would have been a likely starter in the Tigers’ regional opener against whatever lower-echelon team gets sent to Baton Rouge. But now that could be Gilbert, who has the kind of blazing stuff the kind of team LSU will play has seen very little of, if any, this season.

This article is written by Scott Rabalais from The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.




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