(LSU)

HOUSTON - Lefthander Jared Poche is the most important recruit LSU had show up this past fall.

Yes, Poche is a senior, and no, he technically wasn't a recruit last summer. But when the 6-foot-2, 217-pounder, was drafted in the 14th round by the Padres, many around Baton Rouge felt like it was a foregone conclusion that he'd sign and begin his professional career. As the summer progressed, though, the mood changed and Poche announced he was returning to the friendly confines of Alex Box Stadium for one more season.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri and his staff were ecstatic. Not only were they getting back one of the most productive pitchers in the program's illustrious history, they also were welcoming back someone who embodies what LSU is all about: Hard work, getting to Omaha and competing for national titles.

So, when Poche decided to return, he didn't need to say much. He felt like he and the program had more work to do. He wanted to get back to Omaha and help Mainieri and the Tigers nab their seventh national title.

Putting the program he represents before his personal aspirations? That's just Jared Poche in a nutshell.

He's been a man of his word and on a mission since he returned to campus in the fall. He put together a strong fall and couldn't have started the 2017 season in more impressive fashion, tossing a seven-inning no-hitter in a win over Army, while also striking out four and throwing just 79 pitches.

A week later, you'd think that he'd lose a little sizzle, right? Nah, not even close. Poche countered the start against Army with a strong showing against a talented Maryland club. In that game, it took until the ninth inning for the Terps to get a hit off him.

He's that good now, and he didn't disappoint in a stellar start against Baylor when the Tigers needed him the most at the Shriners College Classic this past weekend.

"You know, he's won nine games every year and has a chance to go down as the winningest pitcher in LSU history," Mainieri said. "But I tell him all the time, you're the hardest pitcher I've ever coached to know when to take out of the game. If I was getting guys up in the bullpen every time he got into trouble, I'd be doing it every inning. But he just seems to find a way to wiggle out of every jam and he finds a way to raise him game to another level.

"This year, he hasn't been in trouble too much," Mainieri joked. "He's just been as crafty as he can be, and there's just something about guys when they're seniors. They never lose that confidence in themselves. Jared has been through all the battles. He knows what it takes."

Poche once again was thrust into the spotlight this past weekend in Houston. LSU heralded righty Alex Lange didn't have a great start against TCU and the Tigers had to go to their bullpen early in the game. Therefore, they desperately needed a strong start from the Lutcher, La., native in the second game against Baylor.

He didn't disappoint. He delivered. Poche, unlike his previous two starts this season, had to work out of a couple of potential jams. Baylor's Steve McLean began the game with a double, but Poche got a pair of strikeouts and a caught stealing to get out of the frame unscathed. Then, McLean led off the fourth inning with a single, and again, Poche used a pair of strikeouts to escape the frame. BU started his final inning, the seventh, with a single. And again, Poche found a way to slither out of it, getting a strikeout, a line out and a pop out to get out of the final frame.

He struck out five, didn't walk anyone and allowed just three hits in seven shutout innings. For the season, Poche has now thrown 22 innings and surrendered just four hits.

"I think it was Earl Weaver who said momentum is your next day's starting pitcher. You respond when your starting pitcher goes out there and performs the way he did," Mainieri said. "Poche just went out there and pitched the way he has his first two outings, and that was badly needed after Friday."

Poche's date with success isn't anything new. He had a huge role as a freshman and tallied a 2.45 ERA with a 9-3 record. Then, as a sophomore, he tallied a 3.05 ERA in 109.1 innings, along with 72 strikeouts and 25 walks. Last season, he had a 3.35 ERA in 102 innings, along with 87 strikeouts and 37 walks, but felt he could've been much better.

A big key for Poche? His stuff has been much better, particularly fastball command and the curveball. In the past, the lefty has shown the ability to get up to 90-91 with his fastball, but that had hindered his command of the offering, so he decided to dial it back from a velocity standpoint. This past weekend, he was more 86-88 with the offering and peppered the zone when and where he wanted to. Poche continued to show feel for his changeup against Baylor, while the most striking improvement was his curveball. Still working in the mid-70s with the offering. Poche commanded it well and it had more noticeable depth and sharpness.

At the end of the day, as a prospect, Poche is still a senior sign. But he caught the attention of many scouts over the weekend and there might just be more jockeying for position for Poche than expected, say, two months ago.

"For a lefty, and I hate to sound prejudiced, he has really good control. So many lefties are wild high armside and maybe because the velocity is overpowering. He's not trying to throw the ball too hard," Mainieri said. "He has very good command, and I think there were a couple of occasions when he had a 3-0 or 3-1 count, he threw three strikes in a row. He's just got poise as a veteran and throws strikes. Hitters just seem to mishit him, and in turn, he gets a lot of ground balls and fly balls."

As for Poche, when asked about his dominance through the first three weeks, he answered the question in perhaps the most Poche way possible - humble and kind and always feeling like he has more to prove.

"There's not much to say about it, my stuff hasn't been that great," the senior said. "But my fastball command has been good and that's keeping guys off balance. That's working for me."

The Tigers hope that trend from their prized recruit, err, senior continues.

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