It’s probably a kiss of death, but the points the USA Today Network’s LSU sports beat writer made in his Monday column aren’t bad ones – the LSU baseball team which blew through four games at the SEC Tournament and won all of them by a combined 35-5 score, taking home the conference championship and clinching the #4 national seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament looked for all the world like this year’s College World Series champion-to-be.
Mainieri went once with the Tigers in 2008 before winning it all the next year. He went 0-2 in 2013 with Aaron Nola and Alex Bregman. He still had Bregman in 2015 with a team that won 53 games, including the SEC regular season title, and he went 1-2.
He’ll get there. In fact, you read it here first. LSU will win the 2017 national championship. It’s time. This team is that good. It always has been. I have said all year it has Omaha written all over it. It has just gotten very hot lately, and that combined with the schedule lightening up somewhat with teams like Alabama, South Carolina along with declining Auburn, Mississippi State and Kentucky.
As of now, there is no hotter team in college baseball than LSU.
The baseball team has showcased extreme offense over the last week. But that’s not gorilla ball. It’s hitting through the lineup with a few home runs but not like in 1997 and ’98. The real reason LSU will advance to Omaha and in Omaha will be because of its starting pitching and relief pitching. That’s what wins in TD Ameritrade Park, which swallows home runs more than it gulped away all the atmosphere of Rosenblatt Stadium.
Unlike in the NCAA Regional loss to Houston in 2014 and the Super Regional loss to Stony Brook in 2012, LSU has a three-headed monster in the starting rotation in Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Eric Walker, who looked like an ace in dismissing Arkansas Sunday. If they all three pitch well in the same weekend, no team has a better staff. Then there are elite relievers in Zack Hess and Hunter Newman and a few others who are improving.
There is no doubt LSU is hot right now. Mainieri has his club sizzling. Not only did the Tigers annihilate the competition at the toughest conference tournament in America, winning two of the four games against teams who will be hosting regionals this weekend and beating one of them with the 10-run rule (against the SEC Pitcher of the Year, no less), but that was only a continuation of a hot streak this club has been on for several weeks. Since inexplicably dropping a midweek game to Tulane by a 9-6 score on April 25, LSU has won 16 of 18 games, including 15 of 16 against SEC competition. That’s an amazing run, and were it to continue Guilbeau would be right in predicting a national title at the College World Series.
He’s also not wrong in noting that the elements are present on this team to win at TD Ameritrade. This is not a Gorilla Ball team like the ones LSU used to send to Omaha for the College World Series in a previous era of college baseball; they’re built to win in a cavernous park where the ball doesn’t carry. Greg Deichmann can hit home runs out of any park in the country, and when he ties into one so can Michael Papierski. But otherwise, this is a team full of contact hitters who can work the gaps and the baselines to collect extra-base hits thanks to blazing speed. They’re good base-stealers, though perhaps LSU isn’t as aggressive on the basepaths as they were last year. They play great defense.
And they pitch well, at least with the top-end arms on the mound.
Alex Lange is pitching as well or better than anybody in college baseball, and he’s likely made himself a first-round pick in the June Major League draft. Jared Poche’ has been Jared Poche’ – he isn’t overwhelming anyone with his stuff, but he’s also not letting a whole lot of runs score. And the big difference for LSU this year is Eric Walker emerging as a solid third starter. That’s something LSU hasn’t had since 2012, when the Tigers had a monster weekend rotation with Kevin Gausman, Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades. That was the year Stony Brook came into the Baton Rouge super regional and stunned an LSU team similarly loaded for what looked like a long College World Series run.
Of course, the 2012 team wasn’t as hot as this 2017 Tiger team has been. By this point in the 2012 season, LSU had only been 5-5 in its previous 10 games heading into the regional (this one is 10-0). Mainieri’s club was leaking a bit of oil, though a strong regional performance that included a couple of wins over Oregon State made the Stony Brook disaster all the more surprising.
But since that time, red-hot runs in May have been commonplace. The problem has been extending them past a peak in Hoover.
In 2013, an LSU team which was built a little too much for the long ball was 0-2 in Omaha. They were 9-1 in the postseason leading up to that point, and had won nine of their last 11 to close the regular season.
In 2014, LSU was shocked by Houston in the regional. Before dropping those two games to the Cougars LSU had won 10 straight games (counting wins in the first two games of the regional). They were hot, until they weren’t.
In 2015, LSU went back to Omaha and won the only game in the College World Series they’ve won since Mainieri’s 2009 team, three members of which (Nolan Cain, Micah Gibbs and Sean Ochinko) are currently on the Tiger coaching staff. But prior to that 1-2 finish in Omaha LSU was 7-1 in the postseason and 23-4 in their previous 27 games. They were on fire, until they weren’t. To be fair, that LSU team had at least shown some signs of struggling in postseason play; they’d endured difficult struggles with UNC-Wilmington in the regional and UL-Lafayette in the super regional.
And last year LSU rolled into the super regional with Coastal Carolina on a prolonged hot streak. They’d been 6-2 in postseason play, and had lost the season finale to Florida to break an 11-game win streak after the famous “Rally Possum” incident had sparked a major run of excellent play. But again, the wheels had started getting wobbly. LSU lost the SEC Tournament championship game and had badly struggled with Rice before the Owls ran out of pitching in the regional final – even still, the Tigers needed a lengthy relief appearance from Poche’ to survive the regional.
In other words, the recent history of LSU’s program, at least since 2013, has been that Mainieri’s team gets really hot late in the season, and the hot streak extends until it ends – short of the College World Series final.
It’s fair to note that Walker, whose numbers this season – he’s 7-1 with a 3.78 ERA, and in 85.2 innings he’s walked just 23 batters while striking out 70, with opponents hitting just .233 against him – show him to be far and away the best “Sunday starter” LSU has had. If nothing else Walker has worked more innings as the third man in the weekend rotation than anyone since Eades, who worked 94 innings in 2012 as the “Sunday” guy. Between that season and this one, the most dependable pitcher in that role was Cody Glenn, who got himself suspended just in time for the postseason after working 84 innings in that 2013 season ending in the College World Series; after Glenn’s departure Mainieri hasn’t been able to keep anyone in that role and has often been forced to use a “Joe Wholestaff” approach on Sundays.
Having Walker, who isn’t exactly a power pitcher – he can from time to time touch 90-91 mph on a radar gun, but he mostly nibbles away at hitters with a mid-80’s fastball – but simply chews up innings and usually foes a great job of controlling opposing offenses, holding down the Sunday job is a big deal. His presence means LSU doesn’t necessarily run out of pitching like they did in 2014 against Houston, or in 2015 against TCU in Omaha. Particularly where this weekend’s regional is concerned; LSU is set to face 20-32 Texas Southern, who by the numbers is the worst team playing in a regional, on Friday, and Mainieri might well choose to send Caleb Gilbert or Todd Peterson to the mound in order to conserve Walker for a potential elimination game should something untoward happen in Game 2 or Game 3.
But the key for LSU might not be the starting pitching, or even the bullpen where Zack Hess and Hunter Newman have become such valuable assets. It’s the offense. And here’s where Guilbeau might be right about his prediction.
For most of the season, this has been an underachieving lineup, and for most of the season it’s been maddening to see the Tigers have so many bad at-bats. But lately, those have melted away and this team has done a terrific job of timely hitting. They’ve also been applying a lot more consistent pressure – during this 18-game hot streak LSU has reached double figures in base hits in 10 games, which has meant forcing opposing starters out of games early and getting into bullpens.
There’s no denying this is a team with a national championship look to them, and Guilbeau isn’t alone in his prediction. ESPN’s Chris Burke said the same thing yesterday. The question is whether Mainieri can maintain that look into and through the College World Series. If he can, and if Southeastern Louisiana or Rice, who are in town this weekend, or Southern Miss, Mississippi State, South Alabama or Illinois-Chicago, who’ll battle at the attached regional for the right to meet (presumably) LSU next weekend in a super regional, don’t turn into Houston, Stony Brook or Coastal Carolina, then perhaps we’ll see if the Omaha magic is working the Tigers’ way again.