New weekend, similar test

No. 13-ranked Tigers eye chance to erase bad taste left by Appalachian State.

At first blush, the first three weeks of the 2012 LSU baseball season looked like a cakewalk, especially on the weekends against unheralded teams not expected to give the Tigers much of a tussle.

That notion took an abrupt turn last week when Appalachian State came into Alex Box Stadium and two of three games when the LSU offense suddenly went belly up and scored only one run in the final 20.1 innings.

The good news: The 13th-ranked Tigers have woken up offensively with 36 runs in two mid-week wins. The not-as-good news: LSU faces a Dartmouth team this weekend with more experience and arguably as much talent as Appalachian State.

The Tigers (7-2) and Big Green (0-0) tangle at 7 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday at Alex Box Stadium.

Kyle Hunter: Gets the starting nod on the mound for Dartmouth on Friday

"We'll be tested again this weekend and will have to hit better than we did last weekend because Dartmouth has some good veteran pitchers who know how to get hitters out," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "They had a very good season last year and have most of the same guys back."

Most notably, the Big Green (30-12 in 2011) has all three starting pitchers back from the end of the last season and all are left-handers: Junior Kyle Hunter, sophomore Mitch Horacek and Michael Johnson.

Anchored by that trio, Dartmouth fashioned a 3.97 team ERA and won the final 11 games of the regular season to punch a ticket to the Ivy League playoffs. That's where the season ended against Princeton, but the Green is again poised to be a contender in the Ivy.

This is the fourth year in a row the Tigers have faced an Ivy League foe. Last season the same Princeton team that ended Dartmouth's NCAA Tournament hopes handed LSU its first loss of the season, 8-7 on March 6, 2011.

"They're a good solid team," Mainieri said. "Ivy League teams are fun to play. They're usually very bright and composed and have players who play the game because they love it."

Regardless of what Dartmouth does, Mainieri is eager to see how his team bounces back in a weekend series where the Tigers' hitters figure to be tested more than they were by Grambling State or McNeese State.

Mainieri shook up the lineup in those two games, shifting Jared Foster to the leadoff spot and JaCoby Jones to the two-hole to inject more speed at the top of the batting order.

It's worked so far to the tune of 35 hits and production up and down the batting order, with former leadoff man Tyler Hanover benefitting from the move with 6 hits and 7 RBIs from the six-hole.

Junior Mason Katz has reached base 12 consecutive times and has upped his batting average to .500. Raph Rhymes is hitting .394 with a team-best 12 RBIs.

"This Foster kid has been a real find for us," Mainieri said. "He's a good spark plug – a tough kid who is already improving. And JaCoby has been rejuvenated by going to the top of the order."

As promising as the improved offense has been, LSU has struggled on the mound in the two mid-week wins. Besides Aaron Nola's 5-inning stint and a handful of effective short stints, the Tigers struggled in the two games, allowing 20 runs on 29 hits.

Kevin Gausman: 2-0 0.69 ERA, 14 Ks and 2 BBs this season

Dartmouth has some offensive talent in place, with shortstop Joe Sclafani (.349 batting average, 14 2B, 4 HR, 34 RBIs), DH Ennis Coble (.361, led Ivy League with 40 RBIs) and catcher Chris O'Dowd (.329, 7 HR, 23 RBIs) are all all-league candidates. The Big Green batted .307 as a team last season and averaged 7.1 runs a game.

LSU will use the same weekend rotation it has the first two weeks: Kevin Gausman Friday, Ryan Eades on Saturday and Kurt McCune on Sunday. Gausman and Eades have allowed one run so far this season. McCune was wobbly in his last outing but logged 6 shutout innings in his season debut.

ON DECK: Dartmouth at LSU

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