Baseball: Gonzaga's Mac Lardner leads with a steady presence

Senior pitcher Mac Lardner has entered his senior year with a more developed pitching arsenal and calm, composed mentality.  

On the mound, you won't see much emotion from senior pitcher Mac Lardner. But a glance at the motto “ATTACK” stitched onto his glove will tell all you need to know about his pitching style — his arm does the talking.

Hitters have heard plenty from Lardner, to the tune of over 200 strikeouts in his career. This year, his aggressive and straightforward pitching style will be relied on heavily for Gonzaga baseball to make noise.

“It’s just a mentality,” Lardner said of his glove’s message. “Sometimes, you get too complacent on the mound. It reminds me to attack hitters and get ahead.”

Lardner has gotten ahead of hitters constantly to start the year, with games of nine and 10 strikeouts in his first two starts.

As aggressive as Lardner is on the mound, his mentality is far different off it.

“He’s super laid-back,” said redshirt junior pitcher Keaton Knueppel. “He’s never in a rush to do anything, he’s always on time, but it’s just smooth riding to do what he needs to.”

Though laid-back in nature, Lardner has still learned to be a leader. He is not one to give rah-rah speeches. Instead, he makes an impact with his presence and on-field actions. Lardner has experienced a great deal on the mound in his four years at GU, notching multiple starts every year.

Through this experience, he is  an example for younger teammates, especially the pitching staff. Setting a standard to look up to is an important part of GU baseball's culture, as Lardner looks to pass on the same habits that were given to him early in his time at GU. 

During Lardner’s freshman year, Eli Morgan, who plays for the AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, took Lardner under his wing and showed him what it took to be a successful college pitcher.

“Eli Morgan wasn’t a huge guy, but he works harder than anyone,” Lardner said. “On a travel day, we had to leave at 7 a.m. and he drug a catcher out at 5:30 a.m. to get throwing in. Stuff like that has stuck with me over the years.”

 When Lardner first got to GU, he felt the pressure of going from a high school star to just another college pitcher. In order to develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter, he stressed the importance of preparation.

“I started using visualization the night before or morning of a start,” Lardner said. “I visualize success from first- and third-person points of view. I take myself mentally through the game before I get on the mound and that makes it that much easier to be ready to go.”

In addition to his experience at GU, Lardner looks back on his time last summer in the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts. There, Lardner sized up his game against some of the top players in the country and proved he has the stuff to compete with the best.

Lardner’s arsenal is headlined by his changeup, a pitch that is the main contributor to his plethora of strikeouts.

“His changeup is, I think, as good as any changeup we have seen in the country,” said head coach Mark Machtolf.  

The changeup, in combination with his fastball and a developed curveball, has made Lardner all the more threatening as a starter.

“I’m always ready for him to throw the changeup — hitters know it’s coming, and they still can’t hit it,” Knueppel said. “We're all sitting on the bench like, ‘Here it comes’ and he makes hitters look like fools out there.”

When Lardner is on the bench, he's typically a source of entertainment. Among the team, he is known to be one to joke and crack a smile when the Zags need to break the tension.

Off the field, Lardner always tells any of his many inside jokes with Knueppel. Or, he'll occasionally top off a long day with video games and broccoli beef and orange chicken Postmated from Panda Express.

The ability to carry that same even-keeled mindset on the mound in arguably the most stressful position in sports has been key for Lardner. 

“You’ll never see Mac rattled,” Knueppel said. “He could give up 10 runs in an inning and you couldn’t tell. He’s always out there throwing punches.”

This season has seen Lardner become a true workhorse for the Zags, owning a 2.41 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 18.2 innings to open the year. His ability to pitch deep into games is not only important for him, but has helped set up the team for successful series when Lardner pitches the first game on Fridays.

 “It’s a huge thing," Machtolf said. "You can count on him to go deep into a game, which allows you to be more efficient with what you want to do behind him."

There have been many starts Machtolf looks back on fondly, but Lardner’s performance while under the weather against BYU last year embodied what he brings.

“His velocity was down around 79-81 (mph), but he pitched five to six really good innings, mainly just on his heart and his changeup,” Machtolf said. “I like to see when people don’t have their best stuff and can go out there and compete.”

A different series against No. 18 BYU brought back the best memories at GU for Lardner. His freshman year in 2017, the Zags needed to sweep the Cougars to claim a share of the West Coast Conference regular season title. Lardner did not pitch that weekend, but the celebration he experienced after the Zags completed the sweep showed him what it means to be part of GU baseball.

“We all just leaned together and had zero doubt we were going to sweep them," Lardner said. “The game was on ESPNU and the dogpile after we won was just insane.”

In his final season, more dogpiles all the way to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska are the goal, led by a rotation Lardner has fronted. Though no matter what he does in his final season, Lardner has already achieved renowned status with his teammates.

“He’s an absolutely laid-back legend,” Knueppel said.

This spring, Lardner will hope to add to his laid-back legendary status with a trip to Omaha.

“Omaha is always the goal," Lardner said. "We’re getting closer and closer each a year, and it’s only a matter of time before we break through. I just want to be a part of it.”

Trevor Bond is a staff writer and staff photographer.

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