There were, of course, three different sports in which LSU teams moved on to NCAA championship levels – the softball team won a Super Regional and now heads to the Womens’ College World Series and the men’s golf team is in third place at the NCAA Championships, just two shots behind Texas with a real chance to defend its national title.
But since I’m actually following college baseball enough to have some analysis to form a few opinions, I’ll stick to that subject for this post.
Yesterday, it was announced Paul Mainieri’s Tigers would be a national top-8 seed and host all the way to Omaha. LSU is catching 2-seed Rice, 3-seed Southeastern Louisiana and 4-seed Utah Valley State in its regional, and the flip side of its bracket will be a regional hosted by NC State along with 2-seed Coastal Carolina, 3-seed St. Mary’s and 4-seed Navy. Which leads to a a few thoughts…
1. The NCAA did the best it could to pave the way for LSU to return to Omaha. There has been a good deal of griping around the country that LSU is the NCAA’s darling, and that when regionals come around the Tigers get babied by the selection committee. I don’t know that I would buy that; there have been some awfully tough teams sent to regionals in Baton Rouge. Two years ago when Houston was picked as the 2-seed for LSU’s regional it sure didn’t feel like LSU was catching a break from the NCAA, and when the Cougars rallied in an elimination game to stave off defeat at the Tigers’ hands and then pounded LSU in the regional championship those suspicions were validated.
But this year, under the circumstances LSU couldn’t possibly have asked for better than it got.
First, catching a top-8 seed was a bit of fortune. The thought was that LSU probably needed to win the SEC Tournament over the weekend in order to put the national-seed question to bed, and they fell a day short of the title game – getting shut out by a Florida pitcher who’d thrown all of 16 innings the whole season. Having watched the game, of course, there wasn’t any shame in that result; Scott Moss, the Florida pitcher, would be the ace of probably 10 out of the 14 SEC pitching staffs, and at Florida he gets on the mound for 16 innings all year.
The selection committee knew that, and the fact LSU beat that Florida team three games out of five in the past two weeks is obviously what vaulted the Tigers over South Carolina, who has been ranked ahead of LSU most of the season, and Ole Miss, who made it to the SEC tournament semifinals just like LSU did and even won a series over LSU.
Neither South Carolina nor Ole Miss have won 14 of their last 16 games, though. In fact, Ole Miss is 4-4 in their last eight. South Carolina, who was a two-and-BBQ victim in Hoover, is 6-6 in their last 12. And Vanderbilt, who was 1-2 in SEC tourney play, is only 8-7 in their last 15 games. That’s why those three teams are hosting regionals but not supers, while LSU is.
What’s more, though, LSU isn’t catching a tremendously difficult bracket.
Rice is a name which understandably strikes fear in LSU’s hearts; the Owls have been an exceedingly tough matchup in postseason play over the years for LSU and have, in fact, come into Alex Box Stadium and done away with the Tigers in the past (and then there was the Super Regional in Houston where the Owls knocked LSU out in two games in 2002, shutting the Tigers out twice). But this Rice team isn’t really up to those lofty standards. They’re No. 24 in D1Baseball.com’s current RPI rankings, which is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to #2 seeds, but a 35-22 record isn’t all that great. And the resume is lackluster as well; Rice finished 14-13 away from Reckling Park and 4-8 against Top 25 competition (LSU, by contrast, was 17-8 away from home and 10-9 against the Top 25). In Conference USA, the Owls were 19-10 and finished in 4th place. They’ve traditionally owned that league, but instead Florida Atlantic won the regular season title and Southern Miss won the conference tournament. Even Louisiana Tech, who finished a half-game behind Rice in the standings, swept them in the final weekend series.
The Owls still pitch quite well, as they’ve traditionally done. The team ERA of 3.80 is pretty good. It’s not quite the dominant number you’d expect from Rice, though. And, as has been the case often in the past several years, Rice is not much of an offensive team. They hit just .271 as a team with only 24 home runs, have stolen just 33 of 57 bases, have an on-base percentage of just .344 and score only 4.67 runs per game.
Southeastern Louisiana, the #3 seed, is actually a bit more impressive than Rice is from a statistical standpoint. They’ve got a better record at 39-19, they were an impressive 22-8 in the Southland Conference, which was good enough for second, they’re #40 in the RPI, they were 16-12 away from home and 5-4 against the Top 25. Southeastern also has perhaps the best position player who’ll be playing at the LSU regional in first baseman Jameson Fisher, who hit an amazing .437 this year with 11 home runs. Surrounding Fisher, though, is a beatable lineup; despite the numbers he’s put up this year SLU hits a pretty-good-but-not-great .289, and the next best batting average on the team is 2nd baseman Carson Crites at .307. But they’ve got 46 homers on the year which is more than anybody else at the regional, and the pitching numbers are impressive; staff ERA of 2.83 and opposing batting average of .230.
Don’t be surprised if it’s Southeastern, rather than Rice, who ends up with LSU in the final. LSU beat Southeastern, by the way, 11-4 on April 20.
The 4-seed, Utah Valley, got in as a result of winning the Western Athletic Conference tournament. Their 37-21 record isn’t bad, but their RPI of 130 is. Nevertheless, Utah Valley was 23-11 away from home, which is pretty good, and they actually managed a 3-2 record against Top 25 competition. Plus, they’re on a seven-game win streak at present. They hit .288 as a team, and they’ve got 39 home runs – given that they play at altitude, you’d figure they’d hit more, but their ballpark is oddly-shaped; it’s only 305 feet to the wall in left, which is 20 feet high, and shoots all the way to 427 feet left of center field. Dead center is a relatively normal 408 feet, it’s 388 feet in right center and it’s 312 feet down the line in right. If you don’t hit it down the lines at that place, it’s not getting out.
Nevertheless, Utah Valley’s staff ERA is 4.82. They will likely have some trouble pitching.
2. The NC State regional is more competitive, and don’t be surprised if somebody other than NC State wins it. Coastal Carolina, as a #2 seed, is scary. They’re #12 in the RPI rankings. Don’t be surprised if that’s who shows up in Baton Rouge in a week and a half.
NC State’s record is a little Alabama-esque. They’re 35-20, which is an awfully pedestrian mark for a regional host, and they were a very Alabama-esque 15-13 in the ACC (Alabama, who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, was 15-15 in the SEC and 32-26 overall). But NC State played a tough schedule, particularly outside their conference, and went 19-5 against it – that non-conference slate was rated the 15th toughest in the country; their ACC schedule was rated the 2nd toughest in the country. They went 12-11 against the Top 25, which is impressive mostly in the volume of games they played against that competition. They hit pretty well, with a .300 team batting average and 28 home runs, and they’ve got a couple of really good starting pitchers though the staff depth isn’t great (the team ERA is 4.11).
There is a lot of “meh” to this team. Particularly given that they’re 4-9 in their last 13 games.
Coastal Carolina, on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the strength of schedule (they check in at No. 27) that NC State has. But their 44-15 record is a monster. They won the Big South, which is admittedly nothing special as a league, with a 21-3 record – seven games better than the 2nd place team. They went 19-12 against a non-conference slate which included a 4-5 number against ACC teams (three of the losses came in a weekend sweep at the hands of Georgia Tech) and losses to Ole Miss and South Carolina. They’re currently on a 10-game win streak; in those 10 games they’ve outscored their opponents 74-23. They’re only 3-7 against the Top 25, but they’re 4-1 against 26-50. To some extent they’ve feasted on lesser competition, but
And the statistics on these guys are flat-out scary. The team batting average of .301 is pretty good, not unbelievable, but the 89 home runs is off the charts – they bring four players with 14 home runs or more. And they’ve stolen 99 bases. The team ERA is 3.49, which is pretty darned good. Their two best pitchers have mostly come out of the bullpen this year; one is 10-1 with a 1.79 ERA and the other one is 7-1 with an 0.87 and eight saves.
This matters, because LSU doesn’t get a whole lot of 1-vs.-1 super regionals, particularly when they’re a Top 8 seed. Since 2003, seven out of the nine times LSU has hosted a regional the top seed on the other side of the super-regional bracket hasn’t made it out of the first weekend…
2003: Baylor advances out of Southern Miss’ regional. LSU beat Baylor in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2004: Texas A&M advances out of Rice’s regional. LSU beat Texas A&M in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2005: Tulane wins Tulane’s regional. LSU beat Tulane in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2008: UC-Irvine advances out of Nebraska’s regional. LSU beat UC-Irvine in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2009: Rice wins Rice’s regional. LSU beat Rice in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2012: Stony Brook advances out of Miami’s regional. Stony Brook beat LSU in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2013: Oklahoma advances out of Virginia Tech’s regional. LSU beat Oklahoma in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
2014: Texas advances out of Rice’s regional. LSU lost to Houston in its regional.
2015: ULL advances out of Houston’s regional. LSU beat ULL in a Super Regional to go to Omaha.
Don’t be shocked if Coastal Carolina is your huckleberry in a Super Regional. St. Mary’s and Navy aren’t all that impressive as the 3 and 4 seeds, though Navy’s pitching staff has put up some really incredible numbers this year (against some not-incredible competition; when you go 42-14 and your RPI is No. 145, you have played precisely nobody, and that bears out since they’ve got not a single game against Top 100 competition all year).
3. Interestingly, LSU might be better poised for postseason success this year than last year. That’s going to sound really strange, as last year’s LSU team spent a big chunk of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and had rung up a better record. This team is replacing, after all, eight position players from last year and everybody understood this was going to be a reloading year if not a rebuilding year.
All that said, this team is hotter coming down the stretch than last year’s team was. At this point last year, LSU had won 12 of their last 16, compared to the current team’s 14-2 mark (and the only two losses have come to Florida, the top overall seed in the tournament, one of which was a one-run game). The four losses last year? To Florida, who was No. 6 at the time, to South Carolina, who didn’t make the tournament last year, to Mississippi State, who was the last-place team in the league in 2015, and to No. 2 Texas A&M.
And while LSU’s bats were really cooking toward the end of last season, which isn’t really true of this team, there was evidence they were beginning to cool off – which during regional and Super Regional play really took hold. This year’s team seems to be a little better about finding ways to win games when they’re not tearing the cover off the ball.
And while the 2015 team posted considerably better numbers out of the pitching staff (2015 team ERA: 2.98, as opposed to this year’s 3.86 so far), this staff is better set up for the postseason – and has been pitching considerably better down the stretch than last year’s team did. In six of the last 16 games before regional play began last year LSU allowed five runs or more, while this year the number is just three.
The reason for that? Personnel. The main factor in LSU’s staff ERA jumping a point from last year to this year is that Alex Lange and Jared Poche, the top two starting pitchers, had some struggles early in the season and in the middle. As a result Lange’s ERA went from 1.97 in 2015 to 3.56 this year, and Poche went from 3.05 to 3.61. The rest of the staff has also seen a few jumps as well (Hunter Newman went from 0.49 to 2.12, Parker Bugg from 1.72 to 3.55, Russell Reynolds from 2.95 to 4.28, most notably).
Most of those numbers were built from some struggles early in the season, and they’re all mostly coming down in the latter part of the season. The main issue, of course, is that we have the comparisons to make, because this staff is full of veteran pitchers who have already gone through postseason play in major roles. That experience is huge. The only pitchers from last year LSU doesn’t have now are Zac Person, Jake Godfrey, Kyle Bouman and Alden Cartwright (who is out with an arm injury); everybody else from last year’s staff is still around.
And perhaps the biggest factor of all is that unlike last year, when after Lange and Poche had pitched in a weekend LSU was forced to go with a Joe Wholestaff approach, Mainieri this year actually has a third and fourth starter he can rely on. Caleb Gilbert has made four weekend starts in as many weeks (I’m counting his appearance in the resumption of the Florida rainout game a week and a half ago as a start), and three of them have been pretty darned good. Gilbert’s record – 4-4 with a 4.64 ERA and a .302 batting average against doesn’t blow you away, but in those four outings the numbers are considerably better than that. In those four appearances he has a 3.50 ERA, which is about what Lange and Poche have for the season, and he’s given up 18 hits in 18 innings – an opponents’ batting average closer to .250 than .302.
So LSU doesn’t go into postseason play with Lange-Poche-then-pray. Gilbert gives them a third starter who can throw in Friday’s game against Utah Valley and burn up six or seven innings, saving the bullpen as well as Lange and Poche, and he gives them a pitcher who can pick things up in a super regional if there is a third game. And in Omaha he gives LSU that third arm which is so crucial if LSU has to come out of the loser’s bracket.
Plus, LSU has Jake Latz. They didn’t have Latz last year. And Latz, who is finally healthy and beginning to assert himself on LSU’s pitching staff, could be a big difference-maker as a shutdown arm that LSU perhaps didn’t have in the bullpen the last couple of years. When you have a left-hander who can throw 95 mph and snap curve balls off like he can, you have the ability to break up some would-be rallies. Last year those tended to be a little difficult to put an end to when they got started late in the year – most prominently in the two blowout losses to TCU up in Omaha.
Latz and Gilbert could turn out to be huge additions down the stretch.
LSU doesn’t hit like they did last year, but what this team can do is find a way to score enough runs to win – sometimes, particularly when the pitching let down a little late, that was a problem.
Does this suggest LSU will go to Omaha and get further than last year’s team? No. I wouldn’t be shocked if they did, just because that’s the funny way things go in sports, but I’m not predicting that right now. What I will say is that if Lange and Poche continue rounding into form and the pitching staff depth continues to crystallize, the NCAA’s relatively generous road to Omaha could well result in the dreaded sixth game against the Gators in the first game at TD Ameritrade Stadium.