24 days Fall report from D1: BATON ROUGE, La. — The time has come for LSU to reap big rewards from bringing in college baseball’s best recruiting class in 2018. Despite losing their three top hitters from a year ago — second-round pick Josh Smith, third-rounder Zach Watson, and all-time LSU hit king Antoine Duplantis — the Tigers have a real chance to be better than last year’s 40-win super regional club, largely because their sophomore class is loaded with riches on the mound and breakout candidates in the lineup. And it’s their time to shine. The strength of last year’s LSU club was a veteran lineup, which carried the team to a home regional despite injuries and growing pains on the mound. By contrast, the 2020 Tigers figure to be led by perhaps the nation’s most talented pitching staff. It starts with sophomore righthander Cole Henry, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, going 4-2, 3.39 with 72 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. He missed three weeks in the second half due to arm discomfort, but he feels great now, and his stuff has been electric early on this fall. In his second intrasquad outing last Monday, Henry ran his fastball up to 95 mph and sat comfortably at 91-94, but velocity has never been an issue for him. In fact, LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said Henry largely pitched off his electric heater as a freshman, and he’s spending this fall working on refining his secondary pitches and figuring out how to use them most effectively. That process is going very well. He flashed a plus curveball last Monday with tight downer break in the 74-78 range, and his sinking 83-86 changeup is rapidly becoming a legitimate weapon for him against righties as well as lefties. Dunn said he has shown the makings of three plus pitches, the kind of arsenal that could make him a top-of-the-draft prospect in 2021. “I think obviously Cole Henry is going to be the big horse for us on Friday nights, and I think that gives us a chance against the top pitchers in our league. He’s just really scratching the surface of his potential — I think he’s really got a chance to be a special guy,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He threw an awful lot of good changeups today, and then he started to land some curveballs, and when you back all that up with a lively fastball, he’s very tough. He’s got to try to stay away from those 24-pitch innings so he can pitch deep into games, and as he continues to do that, I think he’ll really take off.” Henry is one of three LSU pitchers in the 2018 recruiting class who ranked in the PBR 100 coming out of high school, and if all three of them take the expected jumps as sophomores, this staff should be dominant. The highest-ranked of the three was righthander Jaden Hill (No. 44), who was outstanding in two starts as a freshman before a UCL strain sidelined him for the rest of the spring, dealing LSU’s Omaha hopes a major blow. Mainieri said the 6-foot-4 Hill has added about 20 pounds of muscle in the last year, and the ball is coming out of his hand great in bullpen sessions this fall. The Tigers expect him to get back on the mound in scrimmage action after fall break, so he’ll be all systems go well before the start of the spring. And that’s an exciting notion. “What Jaden’s done since he’s been here, he’s always thrown strikes,” Dunn said. “He’s a strike thrower, good feel for a changeup, we were really making strides with the slider, it was becoming a power, power pitch when he went down. So you saw the makings of juice, change, mound presence, poise, athleticism, quarterback, all the things that you want to see, he has. Now it’s about taking [the ball] and taking it and taking it. Big piece, big piece for us. Big piece.” Fellow sophomore righty Landon Marceaux (No. 47 on last year’s PBR 100) is another very big piece, obviously. Like Henry, Marceaux dealt with some arm soreness during his uneven freshman year, finishing 5-2, 4.66 in 58 innings. But he came on strong down the stretch — Dunn attributes his late success to the freshman learning to trust his stuff and not try to be too fine on every pitch. He has the stuff to dominate, and he should benefit from the experience and maturation he gained as a freshman. Like Henry, he’s taken a step forward this fall. “I like where he is right now,” Dunn said. That trio of sophomores could blossom into a star-studded weekend rotation, but that outcome is by no means preordained. Fourth-year junior Eric Walker and redshirt sophomore AJ Labas both have starting experience, and both have looked terrific this fall, giving the Tigers five really good starting options. Walker starred as a freshman in 2017, then missed all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He went 5-4, 5.48 in 72.1 innings last spring, but often times it takes two seasons for pitchers to get all the way back from TJ. This fall, Walker has looked like the Walker of old, a premium strike-thrower brimming with confidence. He can’t match the pure stuff of the three sophomores, but he can succeed in a big way with the stuff he’s got thanks to his advanced feel for pitching. “You know Eric’s not gonna blow you away with juice, he’s always relied on command. The fastball, even though it might say 90, plays a little better because it’s got great carry through the zone,” Dunn said. “Changeup was his pitch as a freshman, he limped away from the bats, in terms of you just never could square him up because of the command. Last year his stuff was down, so now if you miss, they had a better chance to get him because he didn’t have that same zip. He’s showing me that this fall. In his work week, his long throws, his flat grounds, the ball’s just got really good carry. I can just see it in his face: ‘That stuff that I felt last year, every little throw, am I hurt again? That’s gone.’ And it takes nothing but getting on the bump and doing that.” Labas, meanwhile, redshirted in 2019 due to a shoulder injury, but his stuff has been better than ever this fall. He’s pumped strikes at 90-93 mph with good, late arm-side run, and Dunn said his slider “has taken two clicks up for me, got some really nice juice.” But his biggest strengths are his ability to fill up the strike zone with three pitches from the same slot, and his unwavering poise. It’s a combination that prompts Mainieri to make a flattering comparison.