Zack Hess wasn't perfect but at least he started to look like himself again in LSU’s 8-3 win over Ole Miss Friday night.
Hess and LSU coach Paul Mainieri made the decision early this week to move Hess out of his normal Friday night starter role and back into a relief role he excelled at in 2017. Gone were the constraints of being starting pitcher and the worries about going deep into the game or how high his pitch count is.
That worry was replaced by the same bravado that endeared Hess to LSU’s fans and led to him being dubbed "The Wild Thing" in a nod to the movie "Major League" during the team's 2017 College World Series run. The Zack Hess who paces around the mound between each pitch and walks back to the dugout like he’s The Terminator after throwing a fastball in the upper 90s for an inning-ending strikeout was back on Friday.
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound, junior entered the game for sophomore Ma’Khail Hilliard with runners on the corners and no outs in the fifth inning, an inning earlier than Mainieri hoped to have to insert Hess. Hess’ first pitch was a 4-6-3 double play, and even though the run scored, it setup the first of Hess’ inning-ending strikeouts.
He followed his first strikeout with three more strikeouts in the sixth inning and another inning-ending strikeout in the seventh.
And after each inning, there was Hess walking back to the dugout with his arms pumping and an infectious energy that radiates throughout the crowd, his teammates and even Mainieri.
“The kid fires me up,” Mainieri said. “That’s the Zack Hess we know and love. He is out there competing like crazy and letting it all hang out.”
Added freshman second baseman Gavin Dugas, who went 2-for-3 with an RBI: “Zack is our bulldog. He’s our leader on and off the field. When he steps on the mound it’s a game changer.”
Hess’ finest moment of the night came in the eighth inning after he found himself in a two-out, bases-loaded jam and the score at 4-3 in LSU’s favor. At the plate for Ole Miss was Cooper Johnson, who hit a high and deep home run off of Hess an inning earlier.
Hess got the best of Johnson on a 2-2 count with a 95 mph fastball on his 55th and final pitch of the game for his seventh strikeout and fourth consecutive inning-ending strikeout of the game. Hess’ emotion showed as he stared Johnson down as both walked back to their dugouts.
“That gave me chills,” said Hess after ending the game with one run allowed on three hits and two walks in four innings pitched. “It felt good to be back in that situation I missed that for sure.
“This is about as electric of a home game we’ve had this year. It’s great to see the Box like this, great to see that from our fans, and again going down the stretch run this was a good win from us.”
The emotion and energy of Hess’ seventh strikeout may not have been there if Mainieri made an understandable decision to pull Hess in the eighth. Mainieri went out to the mound to ask Hess if he had anything left in the tank, and when Hess told him yes, Mainieri said afterward he wasn’t going to take the ball out of his hand.
But why did Mainieri leave a fading pitcher in the game? Because even when Hess’ gas tank is on E, he’s still going to rear back and pitch as hard as he can.
“You figure out the kids you can hitch your wagon to because they either allow you to have a career or they get rid of you because you picked the wrong guy,” Mainieri said. "I picked Hess. I believe in Hess, and Hess has rarely let me down, if ever, because he always gives you everything he’s got.
“And I just believed he could do the job tonight, and even if he hadn’t gotten Cooper I wouldn’t have regretted the decision because I can live and die with what Hess does.”