The first time Paul Mainieri saw Alex Lange pitch, he wasn't sold. Not yet, anyway.
Lange, now Louisiana State's ace junior righthander, was in Baton Rouge pitching in a travel ball tournament in 2012. As Mainieri puts it, Lange "was very inconsistent with his control. He was kind of an overweight kid. You could see potential, but it didn't jump off the page to you." Where the kid out of Lee's Summit, Mo., won Mainieri over came later, when he stopped by the head coach's office.
"Just sitting there talking to him," Mainieri said, "he carried himself with a level of maturity and could articulate his thoughts so very clearly, and I just remember being captivated by him in my office as a 16-year-old. I was just captivated by his personality, his poise, his composure, his maturity, and I thought, wow, if this kid can pitch at all, he's going to be the total package."
For his part, Lange says he doesn't remember much about how he pitched in that tournament, but he does recall the conversation with Mainieri, saying matter-of-factly, "I just was myself around him and told him what I thought, how much I loved the program and how much I'd love to be a part of it."
As the expression goes, the rest is history.
Lange went out as a freshman and had a first-team All-America season, going 12-0, 1.97 in 17 starts as LSU reached the College World Series. His 131 strikeouts in 114 innings ranked sixth in the nation. After going more than two years between losses, dating back to his going undefeated as a high school senior, Lange finally suffered some setbacks as a sophomore in 2016, ending with an 8-4, 3.79 record, though his strikeout numbers--125 of them in 111.2 innings--again ranked in the top 10 nationally.
The bulk of those strikeouts come on Lange's mid-80s downer curveball, long his putaway pitch. He works the curve off of a 90-95 mph fastball, and Lange and LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn worked hard to hone his fastball command as well as his changeup this past fall. But, like Mainieri, Dunn is quick to point out that there's more to Lange than just the velocity on his fastball or the shape of his curveball.
"Obviously, the stuff is what it is, and he's got really good stuff," Dunn said. "But without the makeup and the pitchability, stuff is only going to take you so far. You have to have those other characteristics. I think that's what elevated him into the guy that he's been."
The maturity Lange exhibited that day in Mainieri's office didn't take long to manifest once he arrived on campus as a freshman. Mainieri makes no bones about the fact that playing at LSU isn't for everyone. You're playing in front of 10,000 fans every game, with far more media scrutiny than the average college baseball program and an Omaha-or-bust expectation every season. Not everyone can handle that, let alone as a freshman.
But Alex Lange could.
"There was a lot of hype for his first start (as a freshman)," Mainieri said, "and he went out there and the first pitch registered up on the board at 95 mph, and it was a fastball that you could hear it as it was travelling to home plate. You could hear it buzz through the air, and as soon as the catcher caught the pitch for a called strike at the knees, you could hear the buzz in the crowd. We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'I think we've got something special with this kid.'"
A Different Cat
Lange isn't one to seek attention. He'll do his best to blend in with the rest of his teammates and likes to keep the clubhouse loose. But when his day to pitch rolls around, it's a different story.
"I've had the good fortune of coaching some really outstanding pitchers in my career," Mainieri said, "and I would put Alex Lange right up there with all of them. He's different from Kevin Gausman or Aaron Nola or Aaron Heilman or Brad Lidge. But he's got one quality that just jumps out to me that he shares with all those other guys--he's an absolutely fierce competitor. He's the nicest guy in the world off the field. But on game day, he's a totally different cat."
Lange has had that competitive streak for as long as he can remember--"I don't like to lose in anything," he says--but it was tested in 2016. The Tigers lost a game he started for the first time in his career when Sacramento State upset LSU in the second week of the season. He took his first loss of his college career three weeks later against Alabama, and after giving up a career-high seven earned runs to Auburn on April 2, his ERA was above 5.00.
Yet Dunn points to that Auburn game as one of Lange's best in an LSU uniform because of how hard he battled. Lange gave up four runs in the third inning but steadied the ship enough to pitch into the seventh. LSU went on to lose, but it came back to win the series due in part to Lange's saving the Tigers bullpen from having to be extended in the opener. It was a side of Lange that hadn't needed to come out much when he made things look so easy as a freshman.
"If he doesn't make it out of the (third inning), that affects our whole weekend with our pitching staff," Dunn said. "He was able to grind through and make pitches and keep us in that game into the seventh inning, and that allowed us to win that series. So that's what I mean by him having the ability to just keep us in the game and grind through it and not give in. I think that's what separates guys."
The rest of the season was more typical Lange--he posted a 2.40 ERA over his next nine starts--at least until he was hit hard in LSU's super regional loss to eventual national champion Coastal Carolina.
For Lange, the lessons of 2016 were two-fold. First was how to grind it out on a day when you don't have everything working and you have to use your Plan B to get guys out. The second one was about the importance of having a plan to begin with. Lange says he's always had an attention to detail as a pitcher, but after pitching in the Southeastern Conference for two years, and especially with what he went through last season, he's become even more zeroed in on the six days between his starts.
"I think when you go through something like that, you learn a lot about yourself," Lange said. "You learn how to compete. You learn how to pitch through adversity and you learn not to give up. You learn just how to become obsessed with the preparation process. "Once you become so obsessed with the process of preparing and trying to get ready for the start, the results don't matter as much because you're so obsessed with preparing and getting better. So, during the week, you're not dwelling on a bad start because you're so focused on getting better throughout the week."
A Tale Of Two Alexes
For Mainieri, Lange's career arc reminds him of another recent Tigers star named Alex--former shortstop Alex Bregman.
Bregman had a similarly decorated freshman season in 2013--first team All-American and Freshman of the Year honors--before going through a solid, if less spectacular, sophomore season. But Bregman returned to top form as a junior, earning All-America honors for a second time, and has quickly established himself in the big leagues.
"I don't care how talented you are, in this game, it will humble you and you will have your tough moments," Mainieri said. "I think what Alex Bregman showed in his sophomore year, and Alex Lange showed in his sophomore year, is that they're winners through and through, because when things don't go perfect for them, they don't become somebody different. They're not frontrunners. They fight through the tough times. Ultimately, they end up resurfacing as one of the top guys.
"I expect him this year to have his best year as a junior, quite frankly."
Should that come to fruition and especially if Lange leads the Tigers on a deep run in Omaha, he'll have earned his place among LSU's all-time greats. Lange himself is quick to deflect any such talk, but as the owner of a 20-4, 2.87 career record after two seasons and a laundry list of accolades, with more possibly in store for 2017--he could be the third LSU pitcher drafted in the first round in the last six years--the discussion is inevitable.
"His story is not complete yet, and there's a stretch of really outstanding pitchers at this university," Mainieri said. "But I think whenever you hold a discussion about the great LSU pitchers of all time, you have to talk about Alex Lange. What he did his freshman year, and really his sophomore year too--how he handled the trials and tribulations and still kept plugging along as a true winner--if he goes out there this third year and has another All-America caliber year, you'd have to be talking about him in the same sentence as (Aaron) Nola and (Kevin) Gausman and Ben McDonald, etc. Those guys are a cut above."
As usual, Lange and the Tigers have no shortage of expectations heading into 2017, with Lange a second-team Preseason All-American and LSU ranked No. 4 and counting on the one-two punch in its rotation of Lange and senior Jared Poche'.
Omaha or bust. Or, just another spring in Baton Rouge.
"I'm really, really excited about this group," Lange said. "We've got a lot of young talent coming in. We've got a lot of returners that've been there, that've done that, that've been to Omaha, and we're hungry. We're not going to settle for anything less. We've been heartbroken, not getting to Omaha after getting so close. That's not a feeling that we want to have again, and that's kind of something that's been buzzing in our locker room. We're excited for this season and we're ready to go against Air Force on Feb. 17th.
"I can't wait."