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Griffin Herring dominated as a relief pitcher for LSU. Now, he’s ready to start.

by Zak Wolf
Sunday, June 30, 2024

Griffin Herring dominated as a relief pitcher for LSU. Now, he’s ready to start.
LSU head coach Jay Johnson jogged out of the dugout to meet with Griffin Herring. Johnson had one goal in mind: let the freshman reliever calm down and catch his breath.

Johnson entrusted Herring three innings earlier to provide LSU with stability while its backs were against the wall. The Tigers were one game away from elimination in the 2023 College World Series Semifinal and things looked bleak facing No. 1 seed Wake Forest.

LSU trailed 2-0 with runners on the corners in the second inning. That’s when Johnson replaced Blake Money with Herring. The lefty’s first test was Nick Kurtz — one of the best hitters in the country. Yet Herring fanned Kurtz with an elevated fastball to escape the jam.

The Tigers proceeded to score five in the bottom of the frame and Herring responded by retiring six straight batters. To that point, he’d delivered. But for the first time, he got himself into trouble.

A walk and base hit put two runners on with two outs. Then, the meeting at the mound followed. Herring’s aura remained calm, providing Johnson with a simple message.

“(Herring) goes, ‘Hey, just go tell the pitching coach (Wes Johnson) to call three sliders in a row to strike this guy out and we're gonna be out of this inning,’” Johnson said.

Herring’s first pitch to Justin Johnson was a wayward fastball. Then came the three sliders. All of which resulted in strikes and the at-bat played out just like Herring predicted.

“That's just one of those moments on the mound with a big crowd where you get amped up and probably say stupid things,” Herring said. “But it worked out alright.”

Pitching in big games was nothing new for Herring. A two-time state champion with South Lake Carroll High School in Texas, he was ready when his name was called. Herring’s lockdown performance against Wake Forest was a catalyst for LSU’s 2023 NCAA Championship victory. The following season, he evolved into one of the best relievers in the country, getting nominated for National Stopper of the Year. Herring now has his sights set on becoming a starter again. Whether a return to LSU is on the cards or a move to MLB, Herring is utilizing this summer with Chatham to prepare himself for what’s next.

Against Wake Forest, Herring knew he would be called into action eventually. LSU’s pitching staff grew thin and it desperately needed someone to eat innings. A win meant 2023 No. 1 MLB Draft pick Paul Skenes would start the following game.

But LSU’s first two pitchers combined to throw 1.2 innings, four walks and two earned runs. Yet in 4.2 scoreless frames, Herring allowed just three hits and walked one batter. He exited to a raucous standing ovation in the top of the seventh inning.

LSU held on for the win to force a second game. Skenes pitched eight scoreless innings as the Tigers won 2-0 in extras, sending them to the National Championship. LSU then dispatched Florida in three games to win its seventh NCAA title, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Herring.

“That’ll be an outing that’ll be legendary for a long time,” Johnson said of Herring against Wake Forest. “We don’t win the National Championship without that performance.”

Pressure surrounded Herring before he threw a single pitch in high school. Herring verbally committed to LSU prior to his freshman year following a dominant travel ball display while playing up two age groups.

He previously pitched for the Dallas Mustangs, easily overpowering kids with his fastball, Herring's father, E.J., said. Playing against older competition forced Herring to “learn how to pitch” by focusing on location, not velocity.

Griffin Herring launches a pitch during his start on June 26 against Hyannis / Photograph by Ella Tovey

Despite the early accolades, Herring's spot on Southlake’s varsity team wasn’t guaranteed, said head coach Lary Vucan. Though the more Vucan saw Herring pitch during fall ball, the coach realized Herring’s potential.

His fastball sat in the low 80s, prompting Vucan to give him a chance. The first few weeks of the season in Texas contain tournaments, according to Vucan, meaning teams need a lot of arms so their top guys stay fresh. That allowed Herring to get his shot.

It just so happened one of Herring’s first ever outings came against Argyle High School, the No. 1 team in the country, per USA Today. Argyle entered on a 50- game unbeaten streak. They proved no match for Herring, who tossed 4.2 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts as Southlake won 11-1.

The start quelled any doubts Vucan and his staff had about Herring. Vucan always knew Herring’s arm was special due to his fastball command and nasty slider. But Vucan didn’t know if Herring possessed the correct mental makeup. That “shot off the charts” in the Argyle game, according to Vucan.

“That kind of freedom when I'm on the mound is something that I try to find a lot,” Herring said. “There was no negative result in my mind from that day.”

“I still just remember looking at my pitching coach, going, ‘Man, this guy is a dude.’ He is a different kind of cat man,” Vucan added.

As a freshman, Herring helped South Lake win Texas’ 6A state championship. Four years later, he stepped on LSU’s campus with the same mentality of wanting to contribute right away.

Johnson said Herring “more than held his own” in the fall during scrimmages against LSU’s potent offense. He gained Johnson’s trust, allowing Herring to get his feet wet in a number of early midweek games prior to conference play.

His first challenge came in late March during a series with Tennessee. It was a Friday night in front of a sold out Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge. Herring entered in the eighth inning with LSU leading 6-4, giving him a chance to record his first career save.

“That's why he came to LSU, was to get to pitch in moments like that,” E.J. said.

It took Herring just seven batters to record a six-out save. From that point forward, he knew he belonged. Johnson started utilizing Herring more frequently, culminating in his outings during the NCAA Tournament. Prior to his Wake Forest appearance, Herring's three innings against Oregon State during the Baton Rouge regional proved key.

He started to display the dominance he once showed during his senior year at South Lake. The lefty fooled hitters all around Texas, carrying more than 40 scoreless inning streak in his final year with the Dragons. Though, it wasn’t always that simple for Herring.

As an underclassman, Herring caused coaches to “pull their hair out,” Vucan said, because he got too deep into counts. Herring still recorded outs but often took hitters to three balls, raising his pitch count and forcing his outings to end prematurely. Vucan instilled a more efficient mentality into Herring.

Getting ahead was the emphasis. Vucan told him to win 0-0 and make hitters catch up. Once that was ingrained into Herring’s mind, he figured out he didn’t need to strike everyone out. Instead of pitching four innings, Herring developed a habit of going deeper into games.

Come playoff time during his senior year, his dominance was clear. During the early rounds of the postseason in Texas, teams can opt for a coin flip to decide between a best-of-three series or a single elimination. Southlake also had another dominant pitcher in Owen Proksch — a Duke commit — meaning teams often chose a one-game series.

Vucan joked that he’s notorious for losing coin flips, but it didn’t matter. He always felt he had an instant advantage with Herring.

Griffin Herring winds up for a pitch in his second start of the season against Hyannis / Photograph by Ella Tovey

“When you throw out a guy like Griffin on the mound, he just doesn't give up anything,” Vucan said. “You need one run and you're going to win. That's essentially what it was.”

Herring didn’t mind the single elimination format. It meant he didn’t have to stay the whole weekend in places like Midland, Odessa, or other parts of West Texas.

“I just had to stay for one. So that was the positive for me,” Herring joked.

Behind Herring’s dominant pitching, Southlake advanced to the state semifinals. Since the championship game was scheduled the day after the semifinal, Vucan opted to start Herring the first game. Herring easily dispatched of Ridgepoint High School, allowing one earned run and fanning 13 batters in a complete game. The Dragons won 6-1 before defeating San Antonio Regan 8-5 to capture the state title.

The state semifinal remained Herring’s last start in a competitive game until March 13, 2024. Herring went 1.2 innings against North Dakota State in a 7-0 win, but it remains his only collegiate start. He built on his freshman campaign, lowering his ERA to 1.79 over 50 innings. But Herring’s ultimate goal is to be a starter.

To work his way toward that, Herring joined Chatham. Anglers manager Jeremy “Sheets” Sheetinger’s had a relationship with Johnson, meeting each other at various coaching conventions. Earlier this year, the two discussed names to bring to Chatham and once Herring’s came up, Sheetinger said the addition was a “no-brainer.”

So far with the Anglers, Herring’s displayed a smoothness as a starter. In two appearances, Herring has allowed just one run across 5.2 innings. Batters have accumulated a .125 batting average against the lefty. After chomping at the bit to start the past two years, Herring has enjoyed finally displaying his starting abilities.

“Just being able to be in control from pitch one is really nice,” Herring said. “I get a chance to showcase some of my other pitches that I don't didn't get to throw as much this season.”

The main difference has come prior to Herring stepping on the mound. Herring’s pregame routine has taken some getting used to. He had everything from high school written down and has tried to stick to what worked back then. Herring said he likes to start his warm up an hour before he needs to throw. In his first start, he said he was a little early but tightened it up for his second.

Johnson confirmed that if Herring returns to LSU next season, he’ll be primed for a role in the Tigers rotation. But with the MLB Draft less than two weeks away, Herring hasn’t made up his mind on his next move.

What’s clear to those around Herring is that his mindset, combined with elite talent, will go a long way wherever he ends up.

“He's gonna be successful no matter what,” Sheetinger said.