When opportunity knocks, you can do one of two things: ignore it or invite it in. Last season, Kurt McCune invited it in, offered it a comfortable seat and served up a few hot sliders.
Just days before the 2011 season-opening series, LSU coaches called on the freshman right-handed pitcher to step up as a starter against Wake Forest. Though still learning the ins and outs of being a college athlete, McCune stepped to the mound and removed any doubt regarding his ability to handle the pressure.
McCune pitched six shutout innings, allowing only one hit, two walks and firing seven strikeouts in his first college outing, earning him SEC Pitcher of the Week recognition and a spot in the weekend starting rotation.
"That might have been one of the happiest moments of my life," said McCune. "I've always been told the harder you work, the less pressure you'll have, the more you'll feel like you deserve to be successful. So, just going out there not knowing what to expect and coming out knowing that I did a good job, it felt good."
That marked the beginning of a stellar freshman season for the Norco, La. native, establishing himself as LSU's No. 1 starter and one of the top pitchers in the SEC. He finished the season with a 7-3 record and a 3.31 ERA, working 89.2 innings and recording 25 walks and 68 strikeouts. His performance last season merited him 2011 Baseball America Freshman All-America honors, and he was named to the First Team All-Louisiana squad.
"Last season was awesome for me, it boosted my confidence and it definitely made me a better player," explained McCune. "It also taught me how to lead others, and I learned from older players how to appreciate everything, keep working hard, and never be satisfied with where I am."
This season, all eyes are back on the pitching staff, led by McCune and fellow sophomores Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades. Gausman, who also served as a weekend starter last year, concluded his freshman season with a 5-6 mark and a 3.51 ERA, recording 89.2 innings with 23 walks and 86 strikeouts. Eades emerged as a force for the Tigers in the latter part of the season, posting a 4-1 record and 4.81 ERA in six starts with 18 walks and 31 strikeouts.
The three developed a bond last season that's both brotherly and competitive. McCune believes that this type of relationship will benefit their performance in practices, games and off the field.
"The three of us have always been close, whether it's running, doing drills, or cutting up in the locker room. We're the three best friends that anyone could have," said McCune. "We're always competing and that competition between us will make us better on the mound."
The goals of the pitching staff are similar to last season's goals. They hope to improve from last year's ERA, keep walks to a minimum and remain consistent. The method to achieve these goals has altered with the arrival of new pitching coach and former minor league pitching coordinator for the Baltimore Orioles, Alan Dunn.
"He's brought so much knowledge to us and he's easy to work with," said McCune. "I like that he doesn't just call pitches, he teaches us why he calls certain pitches, and I think as pitcher, knowing why you're throwing a certain pitch helps you throw it more effectively."
McCune has some personal goals set for 2012 that include improving his ERA and working harder than he did last season. He's excited to get the ball rolling and credits his faith for feeling confident both mentally and physically, as opposed to bearing anxiety at the stress of topping last season's accomplishments.
"'Be not afraid for I am always at your side.' I like this quote because no matter how things get, I know God is with me," he said.
McCune is now faced with another opportunity to help his team achieve its ultimate goal: reaching and winning the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. He believes the team chemistry is there, the talent is there, and the want is there.
So, the journey begins.