LSU's Jared Poche' had a big decision to make at the end of the 2016 season. The Tigers' then-junior lefty — fresh off yet another stellar season in the LSU rotation — was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 14th round of the MLB Draft.
He simply wasn't ready to leave Baton Rouge just yet.
He wasn't alone. Several Tigers — like Greg Deichmann (Minnesota Twins), Cole Freeman (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Kramer Robertson (Cleveland Indians)— were drafted as well. As Poche' was in negotiations with the Padres to become a professional baseball player, his fellow teammates decided to return.
It made what Poche' referred to as the most difficult decision in his life a bit easier.
"That's a question I've been asked multiple times," Poche' said on why he returned. "Every kid dreams to play professional baseball. I got that opportunity. Greg, Cole and Kramer all decided they were coming back. I knew we had a pretty good class coming in, too. Seeing the potential of what this team could be, and being a Louisiana boy, it's always been a dream of mine to win a national championship here. I just wanted to give it one more shot.
"Obviously I prayed on it a lot. I'm definitely happy to be back. It's been a great year so far. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season."
Thus far, it appears that they made the correct decision. Robertson -- the team's shortstop -- is batting .340 in the leadoff spot while scoring a team-best 15 runs. Freeman -- the Tigers second baseman -- is leading the team in batting average, hitting .479 on the season. Deichmann -- their big-hitting outfielder -- is batting .367 while leading the team in both home runs (6) and RBI (21).
And then there is Poche'.
Poche' has made three starts in 2017. He is now 3-0, striking out 15 and walking a mere two batters. The southpaw has allowed just four hits all season, not letting a run score on his watch.
'A great year so far' may be an understatement.
It all started on Feb. 18 in the second game of a double-header against Army. Poche' dealt a no-hitter, needing just 79 pitches to get through seven nearly perfect innings.
"After I finished the fifth inning, I looked up there and realized I didn't give up any hits," Poche' said. "I'm the kind of guy that likes to communicate with his teammates. I guess it was because of the no-hitter, but all of a sudden, the guys started avoiding me. They knew I knew, and I knew they knew.
"Going out in the seventh, I was a little nervous but after that first out the nerves went away. I remember thinking if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. It was a great moment for myself, my family and the team."
Poche' has long been the model of consistency for LSU, reeling off nine wins in each of his three seasons on the mound. The big difference he sees this season is in his command, which he admits, "is kind of mind boggling.""Preparation is big here, Poche' said. "Putting in the work during the week takes care of itself on game day. Ultimately it's been my fastball command. That's been the difference for me, being able to throw any pitch in any count, and having the confidence and conviction to execute the pitch."
Something else that has helped Poche' progress each season is Alex Lange. Lange -- who pitched another eight shutout innings of two-hit ball Friday night -- is widley considered one of the best college arms in the nation, with many expecting him to be a top ten draft pick this June. Together, the two create a formidable two-headed monster atop the Tiger's rotation.
"We kind of got a little friendly competition going," Poche' said. "It's been going on for three years now. Whether it's Alex or me going Friday, the guy on Saturday is always trying to one up the performance from the night before. It motivates us to be the best that can and do what we have to do to win."
One would think that a junior pitcher coming back for his senior season would expect to be the regular Friday night ace. That is not the case for Poche' or any of the Tigers. He and the other three draft picks didn't come back for personal accolades or school records. They came back to win.
Jared Poche' SEC Pitcher of the Week AGAIN!https://t.co/BLErSO4iyg— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) March 6, 2017
"There's a stat that if any player stays here four years, they are pretty much guaranteed a trip to Omaha since [the 1980s]," Poche' said. "I had my opportunity my sophomore year and we fell short. The big thing for me is not only getting to Omaha, but making some noise and bringing back the trophy to Baton Rouge."
It's a common goal of everyone on the field. The selflessness of the four returning draftees trickles down and makes this team stronger. The experience and athleticism will surely help, but the camaraderie is what will take them to Omaha.
"You can have all the talent in the world," Poche' said. "If you don't play well together, if you don't genuinely like the guys you are playing with, for some reason in this game of baseball, it just doesn't work for you. You got to take care of those things. You get to know the guys and develop relationships. It will take care of itself on the field."
Last weekend, the Tigers had their biggest test of the season at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic. They didn't fare as well as they had hoped, winning only Poche's start, but that didn't mean they didn't walk away with valuable lessons.
"The difference in these close games, it's one pitch here or one at-bat there," Poche' said of the Shriner's Classic. "It's the small things that matter. Coach says all the time that these one-run games will define our season. We didn't get the job done. But there is plenty of season left and we learned from it."
This weekend LSU has their last non-conference weekend series before their grueling Southeast Conference slate opens. They face another early season test against an 8-3 Wichita State — the team that LSU defeated in the College World Series in both 1991 and 1993. While the focus is one game at a time, there is no denying that Poche', Freeman, Deichmann and Robertson have one thing on their mind.
It's not bettering their draft stock from 2016. It's bringing home LSU's seventh national championship since 1990.
"That would be unbelievable," Poche' said. "We all made that decision to come back after being drafted. Just knowing the guys from the 2009 team and seeing how close they are seven, eight years later. I want to be a part of something like that."