HOUSTON—Baylor third baseman Steven McLean lashed a double down the right field line off Louisiana State lefthander Jared Poche' to lead off the first on March 4. From second base, McLean flexed toward the Bears' dugout.
On the Minute Maid Park mound, Poche' was calm. He had opened the season with 15 hitless innings—a seven-inning no-hitter against Army on Feb. 18, and eight hitless innings against Maryland on Feb. 25 before his bid for back-to-back no-hitters was broken up by the leadoff batter in the ninth inning. But there would be no no-hit drama on the big stage of the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic.
"It's obviously been all the talk with everything around the media and everything," Poche' said. "Soon as I gave up that hit, part of me was like, 'Ok, I got that out of the way.' But I was able to bear down, make pitches and keep that guy from scoring."
Poche' retired the next eight batters in order, and McLean was erased trying to advance to third on a pitch in the dirt. Poche' threw seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 victory. A week later, Poche’ threw seven more scoreless innings in a 12-5 victory against Wichita State to extend his scoreless to 29 innings to start the season. His streak is the second longest in program history, trailing only Ben McDonald’s 44-inning streak in 1989, a season that ended with him winning the College Player of the Year award.
Unlike McDonald, a big, power righthander, Poche’ isn’t overpowering. His fastball sits in the mid to upper 80s. But he mixes four pitches and fills up the strike zone.
Poche' said his stuff hasn't been great this season, but he's been able to succeed thanks to his pitchability and control. He executed his game plan well against the Bears, becoming the first pitcher to beat them this season.
"Baylor's a great team, they were undefeated coming in," Poche' said. "I just wanted to go out there and throw up as many zeros as possible. Fortunately our offense put up some runs for us and I was able to get the W."
Getting wins is something Poche' has been especially adept at throughout his college career. A member of the Tigers' rotation since he was a freshman, Poche' won nine games a year in his first three seasons. His victory against Baylor made him the sixth pitcher in program history to reach the 30-win milestone. He is now seven behind Scott Schultz for the Tigers' career record, a mark that is within striking distance this spring.
As successful as Poche' has been at LSU, he has taken it to another level this season after deciding to return to school for his senior year instead of signing with the Padres after getting drafted in the 14th round last June. In 29 innings, he has struck out 18, walked two and surrendered eight hits. So far, he has outpitched rotation-mate Alex Lange (3-1, 3.05), a second-team Preseason All-American.
Poche's emergence as LSU's version of Johnny Vander Meer has surprised even coach Paul Mainieri, who said he has often told Poche' that he is the hardest pitcher he has ever coached to know when to take him out of a game. The lefthander has always had a knack for getting into and out of trouble. Only this year he hasn't had any jams to escape.
"This year, he hasn't been in trouble very much, quite frankly," Mainieri said. "He's just been crafty as can be out there. There's just something about guys when they're seniors, though. They've seen it all, they just never lose that confidence."
Poche's improved fastball command has been critical in the early going. Entering this season, he had averaged 2.61 walks per nine innings in his career, a solid mark. But as he has tightened his command, he has become harder to hit and issued fewer walks, leading to more clean innings.
Poche' said he hasn't done anything specifically to improve his command, but is seeing the payoff from his daily work with pitching coach Alan Dunn.
"I haven't been throwing as hard or it hasn't been as sharp as it's been in the past," Poche' said. "But I've been able to make pitches when I've needed to, been able to expand the zone, put guys away when I can."
In addition to his fastball command, Poche' is able to throw his offspeed pitches for strikes, particularly his above-average curveball. With his ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and the movement he gets on his pitches, he is difficult to square up.
Poche's senior season is off to a storybook start. He said that scenes like the one he experienced in Houston, with a large crowd of LSU fans cheering him on in a big league ballpark, were part of what he was hoping for when he decided to return to school.
But, as he wrote on Twitter last July to announce his decision not to sign with the Padres, what Poche' is really chasing is a perfect ending.
"One last ride along with my brothers and tiger nation to win the natty," Poche's statement began.
LSU is 12-4 and ranked No. 6. The Tigers have a deep, veteran lineup to go with their 1-2 punch on the mound of Lange and Poche'. The goal of a College World Series trip and a national title is very much on the Tigers' minds.
Poche' said he has not thought about his decision to return for his senior season since he made it. He is enjoying his final season in Baton Rouge, eager to finish his career with a flourish.
"I knew we were going to have a great team this year and so far we've been playing really well," Poche' said. "It's going to be a fun ride for us."