Everything has pointed to this for LSU - Cole Henry in ace role in Super Regional vs. FSU

Glenn Guilbeau
The Daily Advertiser
LSU's Cole Henry throws a pitch during the first inning of a Southeastern Conference tournament NCAA college baseball game against South Carolina, Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

BATON ROUGE - Since late April, LSU has been holding its ace.

Today, it will deal him.

Freshman right-hander Cole Henry is the Tigers' new ace. The fastball power pitcher will start for LSU at 2 p.m. Saturday on ESPN when the Tigers (40-24) open NCAA Super Regional play against Florida State (39-21) with the winner of the best-of-three series advancing to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

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"A freshman pitching in a huge Super Regional," Henry said Friday afternoon. "It's crazy. But, yes sir, I knew it was coming. Now it's my time to step up and do what I do."

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Henry (4-2, 3.51 ERA), one of the top high school pitchers in the nation last year out of Florence High in Florence, Alabama, pitched like an ace on April 19 against Florida as he struck out 12 in in five and one-third innings with no walks in a 13-1 win.

After that game, Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn decided they were going to move Henry into the Friday night ace role held by junior Zack Hess, who was struggling with consistency and was soon moved to the bullpen. But Henry woke up with elbow pain the next Monday and was sidelined for a month. Ma'Khail Hilliard replaced Hess in the rotation, but did not fare well.

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Henry did not need surgery, just rest. He did not pitch again until May 21 at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, in what was a rehabilitation assignment. He allowed five hits and four earned runs in an inning and two-thirds, but he was not hit hard and struck out three with no walks.

"We were happy how he threw the ball," Mainieri said at the SEC Tournament. "We thought we could throw him in another week and get five innings out of him. If that happens, we'll have three bonafide starters."

That is exactly what happened.

LSU went into the season with Henry and fellow feshman right-hander Landon Marceaux (5-2, 4.64 ERA) ticketed for weekend starts. But it never happened until last weekend. Marceaux was just coming off an arm injury as Henry was sidelined in April.

Marceaux will start the second game of the Super Regional at 5 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2 with sophomore right-hander Eric Walker (5-4, 5.47 ERA) starting a 7:30 p.m. Monday game on ESPN - if necessary.  

After the SEC Tournament, Mainieri and Dunn decided to start Henry in the all-important second game of the NCAA Regional - or marble game - last Saturday against Southern Mississippi in a winner's bracket pairing. Henry threw five innings exactly of shut-out ball, allowing only two hits while striking out six with three walks in a no-decision that LSU won 8-4. It advanced to this Super Regional the next day with a 6-4 win over USM.

On Monday, Mainieri met with Henry.

"He asked me how I felt after the last game," Henry said. "I said, 'I feel great.' And he said, 'Well, I think we're going to start you in the first game, if everything goes as planned this week and you still feel good.' So, I just stayed with my routine. Every day it felt great, and I'm ready. I actually feel stronger now than early in the season." 

Florida State will start junior left-hander Drew Parrish (8-5, 5.07 ERA) Saturday and follow with sophomore right-hander CJ Van Eyk (10-3, 3.71 ERA) on Sunday. Sophomore right-hander Conor Grady (9-5, 3.64 ERA) will start the Monday game - if necessary.

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"I'm trying to enjoy every second of this, and not brush it off," said Henry, who was so excited his voice was shaky at times during Friday interviews and even chose a rare word.

"I'm going to try to have complete comfortability out there," he said. "It's awesome. I've got to stay within myself and do what works for me. I'm going to try to pitch my game and treat it as any other start I've had this year. Try not to do too much."

Mainieri views Marceaux as ace 1A.

"This is no knock on Landon Marceaux," he said. "He's been pitching great baseball, and the second game is most important, some say. It's that pivotal game. It can win the series or split the series."

Florida State baseball head coach Mike Martin become the first coach in any NCAA sport to reach 2,000 wins.

LSU and Florida State - a couple of college baseball titans for decades - will meet in a Super Regional for the first time. The two schools have played in Omaha five times with the Tigers winning four - 6-2 in an opener in 1987, 6-3 in 2000 and 5-4 and 7-4 in 2017. The Seminoles beat LSU, 6-3, in a CWS opener in 1994. Florida State eliminated LSU from the NCAA South Regional, 4-2, in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1975.

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The game also matches two Hall of Fame coaches who have combined for 3,441 wins. Florida State's Mike Martin, who is 75 and retiring after this his 40th season at Florida State, leads the NCAA in all-time wins with 2,026. Mainieri, 61, has 1,415 wins in his 13th season at LSU and 37th overall. Martin was named to the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, while Mainieri reached the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014.

Martin has taken Florida State to Omaha 16 times and finished second twice, but has never won the national championship. Mainieri has been to Omaha six times - five times with LSU and once with Notre Dame - and won the 2009 national championship with the Tigers and finished second in 2017.

"I think it's an epic match-up," Mainieri said. "Florida State against LSU - two of the blue bloods of college baseball in a Super Regional. To me, it's a great honor to get to coach against Mike."