LSU in Unfamiliar Territory

This is not where a reasonable person would have predicted LSU would be entering the final weekend of the SEC season: 34-19 overall, 11-16 in league play and dead last in the Western Division, needing a sweep of MSU plus some help just to make the SEC Tournament field.

It’s certainly an unusual situation for the Tigers, who just two years ago won their sixth College World Series championship.

“I wish we weren’t in such an acute situation,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “You wish you had a little bit of margin for error. We’ve just got to treat it like it’s postseason baseball now. You’ve got to win or go home.”

MSU (33-19, 13-14) can assure itself a spot in the SEC Tournament with two wins this weekend, although it’s still mathematically possible for the Bulldogs to make the field with one win or even no wins against LSU. A West title is within reach, too, and an NCAA Regional berth is all but certain.

So you could say there’s a little more security for State than for LSU. But coach John Cohen knows that LSU is like a sleeping giant, and one that appears to be waking up late in the season. The Tigers have won 10 of their past 12 games, including a pair of SEC sweeps – against Kentucky and Tennessee, the two worst teams in the league. The two losses came to Alabama.

LSU appears to have issues, but when I asked Cohen about that yesterday, he just chuckled.

“I don’t think LSU has issues, I think the SEC has issues, and the issues with the SEC is it’s good – real good,” Cohen said. “The margin of error from being the No.1 team in the country to getting beaten up in the SEC a little bit is about the size of a human hair. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with LSU.”

The numbers would say otherwise. As beat reporter Randy Rosetta pointed out in the above-linked story, LSU is 2-10 in SEC road games and is hitting .260 in those contests. The Tigers are hitting .301 on the year and lead the league in runs scored (355, or 6.7 per game). In SEC play, those numbers are .284 and 139 (5.2/game) – but then, most teams’ offensive numbers go down in league play.

Going strictly by the numbers, it would seem that LSU has struggled adjusting to the new bats. A team once known for power has only 11 home runs in SEC play this season (tied for 10th); but on the other hand, LSU’s set a school record for sacrifice bunts in a season (50, tied for first in the SEC). Junior Tyler Hanover has set the school’s individual sac bunts season mark with 14.

The problem has been consistency. I had someone who follows the team closely use the word “erratic” to describe the offensive production. He also said that LSU struggled the most when it was bunting “too much.” So it seems the Tigers are still searching for an offensive balance.

Cohen praised the play of junior outfielder Mikie Mahtook, who’s second in the SEC in batting average (.370) to MSU’s Jarrod Parks. Cohen also likes the Tigers’ defense, in particular shortstop Austin Nola. On the mound, the starting pitching has been solid, but there have been bullpen issues – LSU is last in the SEC with eight saves.

All of these stats might not matter this weekend, because LSU has a lot to play for. Even if it misses the SEC Tournament, an NCAA bid is well within reach.

“This is going to be another weekend full of pressure,” Mainieri said, “and that’s what you get when you come to LSU.”