College baseball: LSU ace Alex Lange's unique family bonds led to baseball success
The two most important chapters of Alex Lange's life are as distinct as his two primary pitches.
There's the fastball. At 90-94 mph, the pitch hurtles at the batter from a steep arm angle, a vertical mammoth that, if executed, paints the corner for a called strike or glides high for a swing-and-miss.
Then there's his curveball. It comes in at 82-85 mph, starts from above the belly and drops to the shins, plummeting, some say, as much as 3 feet just before the plate.
There's no mistaking those two, just like there's no mistaking these two.
You probably know, at least a little, about the two chapters in this kid's life.
There's the one in which his mother, Renee, adopted him, reared him in her own structured environment, nurtured his baseball talent and even reached out to his biological parents to connect the two.
There's the other in which a once-chubby Midwestern catcher, benched on his youth team, developed into a college All-American here on the bayou, a guy that now consumes crawfish and boudin as much as the rest of us.
Story on the GREATEST mother. Thank you momma Lange. I love you! https://t.co/mNsKUDcfSj— Alex Lange (@Lange_17) May 25, 2017
"That first time he came down here," Renee Lange says, "he came home with this Cajun accent."
South Louisiana has rubbed off on this Missouri boy -- the people, the food, the culture.
He has learned to cook Cajun favorites when he returned back home, and he has stocked his mother's spice cabinet with a seasoning she wasn't familiar with: Tony Chachere's.
"He puts it on everything," Renee laughed.
Renee has moved from the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit to Baton Rouge -- at least temporarily. For the past two weeks and the next few days, she's staying in a unit at the Fieldhouse Condominiums, the colorful complex on the northern edge of campus.
That's is where she is on this rainy Monday afternoon, seated in a leather chair and discussing her favorite topics -- her son, and the chapters of his life.
A third chapter begins soon.
Alex is set to pitch in his final home game Saturday night at Alex Box Stadium, taking the mound for LSU's highly anticipated super regional opener against Mississippi State and coach Andy Cannizaro, the former Tigers assistant.
When LSU's season ends, his college career will end, barring something wholly unexpected. The Major League Baseball draft is Monday night, and Alex, by most projections, is a first-round selection or a "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds.
He'll leave this program with an ERA well under 3.00, more strikeouts than all but one other Tiger and at least 29 victories, one of just 12 to reach that mark.
"He'll go down," coach Paul Mainieri said, "as one of the greatest in LSU history. He's had a tremendous career, and he'll be pitching in an enormous game Saturday night."
Renee and her husband Craig returned all of it to Walmart.
The hundreds of dollars' worth of baby items that filled a newly created nursery were back on the shelves -- baby toys, baby sheets, baby pillows, baby diapers.
For five long months, the Langes, through an agency, attempted to adopt. They turned down four infants, mostly because of health issues, before settling on the fifth child. Things were all set. They created a nursery.
And then the woman changed her mind, keeping the baby girl.
"It was devastating," Renee said.
Renee was (and still is) a schoolteacher, instructing special education for seventh-graders. She was unable to conceive a child. Craig had three children from a previous marriage.
The disappointment didn't last long. The adoption agency phoned Renee soon after: Another woman was giving birth, and she wanted to put the boy up for adoption.
Renee rushed out of the house, swung by Walmart to purchase a car seat -- like the one she'd returned days before -- and arrived at the hospital.
"When she was handing him over to me, I actually uttered the words, 'I can't take this woman's baby,' " Renee said. "He cried the whole way home."
Craig was playing golf that day. There were no cell phones then. Craig Lange returned home after playing 18 holes to find his wife lying on the floor of the couple's living room with a baby boy sleeping on her chest.
"He never got my message," Renee said laughing.
Alex and Renee have been close ever since -- physically and emotionally. Those who know them say their relationship is not your typical mother-son bond. They're thick as thieves, these two -- a result, maybe, from their reliance one another for the last 16 years.
Craig and Renee divorced when Alex was 6. Craig now lives in Tennessee.
Alex and Renee have each other.
"They have an amazingly strong bond," Mainieri said.
Alex phones his mother after each one of his starts. He begins the conversation in the same way every time: "What'd you think?"
Renee has spent the past three years watching her son's starts alone in the living room of her Missouri home. She screams at the TV. She curses at times. And she cries, too.
She has traveled this year more than any other season, catching a handful of road and home starts, spending a week in Hoover, Alabama, for the SEC tournament and the past two here in Baton Rouge.
Back in Missouri, Renee ran her house as she would her classroom, with "tough love," as LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn put it.
There were rules -- a lot of them. Sundays, for instance, were mandatory family days for Alex and Renee. The two spent much of it on academics.
Alex had a 4.0 GPA in high school, and he arrived at LSU to study pre-med ("That's not the case anymore," Renee laughs). He's always been a fast learner.
Renee potty-trained Alex in two days' time at age 2. She had him reading books by age 3 and solving multiplication at 4.
Through every step of his life, Renee was there. That included baseball.
"I don't remember one lesson that Renee wasn't sitting next to us and even taking notes at times," said Mark Nussback, Alex's pitching coach since age 12 who played seven years in Triple-A with the Cardinals.
"Her being there taught me a lot about the whole picture -- the parent, the kid, the coach," Nussback said, "And how it all worked together to make an Alex Lange. It wouldn't have worked without her."
Others are beginning to recognize that. The Louisiana Institute of Children in Families last January named her its adoptive parent of the year.
Alex Lange's biological mother visited Renee and Craig's home just days after his birth.
She brought blankets for the son she gave away.
"That's when she told me that she had baseball players in her family," Renee said.
"If he picks up the ball," she told Renee, "foster it."
A year later, Alex literally picked up a ball and threw it across Craig and Renee's living room.
Said Renee: "We looked at each other and said, 'Oh my God.' "
Craig and his adopted son began playing pitch-and-catch. Soon, that turned into lessons with instructors. On a teacher's salary, Renee could afford only a lesson every other week. Trainers noticed Alex's talent -- at the plate and in his arm.
He joined a year-around travel baseball team as a catcher, started working with Nussback and then hit a snag. He found himself riding the bench on his 13-year-old team. Renee pulled him off that squad and put him on another.
The two teams played to open the next season. Alex started on the mound and got the win.
"It was awesome," Renee said. "That felt good."
Alex honed his young skills in the family's garage, tossing balls against a tarp hanging from the ceiling. The baseball made a thumping sound when hit the tarp. If Renee heard it stop, she'd peek into the garage.
"If he'd stop for a minute, she'd say, 'You're not done yet!' " Nussback said.
"She demanded perfection," Alex said.
Every prospect has his big break. Alex had his in Iowa at a Perfect Game Showcase event in 2011. Chad Raley, then running Marucci's travel ball team in Baton Rouge, saw Alex, approached his mother about him joining the team and was immediately rebuffed.
That was too far from home for 15-year-old Alex, she told him.
A year later, Alex and Raley convinced Renee to let it happen. He spent the next three summers in Baton Rouge and Texas, often staying with Mariucci teammate and future LSU teammate Alden Cartwright.
TIGERS WIN!! TIGERS WIN!!— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) May 19, 2017
LSU takes the opening game over Mississippi State, 3-1. Huge win for the Tigers. pic.twitter.com/T4Rn92XtKv
He experienced the city, the culture, the people and LSU baseball, playing some games at Alex Box and spending late nights at Marucci's indoor facility. Renee says Raley is partly behind the pitch her son is most known for -- his 12-to-6 curveball.
"There were times I was picking Alex up at 1 a.m. at the facility. They were doing drills," said Raley, who now coaches Louisiana Knights and a part-time Royals scout. "He worked his ass off. That's when he really started taking his pitching to the next level."
Even before offers poured in from LSU, Arkansas, Missouri, Miami, Vanderbilt and Stanford, Alex knew where he'd attend college.
He was in the stands during LSU's NCAA regional-opening game against Louisiana-Monroe in 2012. Aaron Nola, then a freshman, hurled an eight-inning four-hitter that day in front of a packed crowd.
Alex called his mother during the game, held up the phone so she could hear the roars and said, "This is where I'm going to college."
A couple years later, Alex turned down close to $1 million during the third round of the 2015 MLB draft. A projected first-round pick this year, he stands to make a signing bonus of at least $2 million.
'Renee Lange is my mom'
Alex has spoken to his biological mother once, stumbling upon her phone number at age 13 while he rummaged through Renee's home office desk one afternoon. He called the number. The woman answered.
"She told him, 'I think you have the wrong number,' " Renee said.
Renee has not hidden her son's biological history from him, nor has she kept her son's exploits in baseball from his biological parents. She's gone to great lengths to connect the two families -- an unusual move.
"The more people that love my kid, the better," Renee explains. "It's not going to take away the bond we have."
She's reached out. Alex says he has as well.
They have never received a response.
"I don't really care," Alex said. "Renee Lange is my mom. I'm happy with my situation. I was blessed with it."
Renee says she and Alex have not spoken about the issue of his biological parents in about three years.
"If it were me," Renee said, "I would want to know."
His teammates and coaches have taken care of that, enveloping this 6-foot-3, 200-pounder as brothers would.
Just a few months ago, they rallied behind him during early-season stumbles at TCU and Georgia. At 1.2 innings long, the start in Houston against the Horned Frogs was the shortest of his career. He walked more batters (three) than he struck out (two) for just the third time in his 50 career starts.
"There were times early this year ... I was scratching my head saying, 'Man, I don't know if the magic wore out,' " Raley admits.
At Georgia two weeks later, he allowed seven earned runs, tying a career high.
He called his mother afterward as frustrated as she's ever heard her son.
"There was confusion," Renee said.
"I've got to figure out what I'm doing wrong!" he yelled into the phone.
"When you don't know why it's not working," Renee said to a reporter, "I think that's scary."
Renee calmed her son during that 10-minute phone call. Meanwhile, Alex made adjustments under Dunn's watchful eye. Alex changed his stance on the mound, something that "loosened up" his hips, he said. And he began pitching more inside to batters.
It worked. He has allowed more than three runs just once in the 11 starts since the Georgia game. That came in the regional last week against Southeastern Louisiana, when he shook off a rough first two innings with a smooth final four.
"That's why he is who he is," Dunn said. "When his back is against the wall, he makes the big, big pitch."
Opponents are 0 for 17 against Alex this year when the bases are loaded. That separates the good from the great, said Dunn, the former major league pitching coach who's in Year 6 at LSU.
Dunn is the primary reason Alex attended LSU, his mother said. The coach helped during Alex's biggest transformation: from his senior year of high school to his rookie year at LSU in 2015, one that produced an SEC Freshman of the Year honor.
Alex lost 25 pounds, and Dunn narrowed his pitching arsenal from four pitches to three, scrapping the slider to focus on the curveball.
Dunn laughs about some of that stuff now.
"He redistributed some of his weight," he said smiling, "let's just say that."
Some compare Alex to Nola, the Baton Rouge native who's been in the Phillies' starting rotation. They are both are strikeout pitchers who thrive with men on base.
There's a link between the two. Stacie Nola, Aaron's mother, has been a person of comfort for Renee. The two met only once, but during Alex's tough times on the mound, Stacie will fire a supportive text to Renee.
"She hardly knows me," Renee said, "but she always knows exactly the right thing to say."
The Phillies picked Aaron Nola with the sixth selection in the 2014 draft.
Alex isn't projected that high, but Mainieri says he'll be "surprised" if his ace isn't a first-rounder. Alex has the "most dominant" secondary pitch -- that curveball -- of any pitcher Mainieri has ever coached, he said.
Alex's major league future is hazy, like many college prospects. Is he a starter or late-inning reliever? Raley and Dunn both say scouts are split on the issue. His fiery mound presence, the effort in which he exerts and that devastating curveball leads many to point to the latter.
"(With) that competitive demeanor," Raley said, "he'd have success at the back end of a pen. But knowing him, he wants the ball, wants to start."
If LSU isn't playing in a Game 3 Monday night, the Langes are planning to have a small watch party. Nussbeck will be in town and so will many of Renee's family members from New York, her home state.
They'll all gather to see the page turn to the next chapter.
"My body of work is complete," Alex said.
He smiled and quickly added: "But I'm focusing on one last start at the Box."
This article is written by Ross Dellenger from The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.