On the heels of the busiest week of the season so far, the LSU baseball team reached a crossroads where it must turn the page quickly to arguably the toughest stretch since the new campaign began.
That starts Tuesday when the 11th-ranked Tigers (10-2) tackle their toughest challenge of the seaosn when they venture to New Orleans to face Tulane (10-2) at 6:30 p.m. at Turchin Stadium.
After the short road trip down I-10, LSU entertains Michigan and Notre Dame for two games each in a round-robin event that spans Friday through Monday at Alex Box Stadium.
Where are the Tigers after 12 games and three pre-SEC weekends of play? With a lot of work to do and progress to make before Mississippi State heads to Baton Rouge March 16-18 to lift the lid on the SEC season.
In other words, like most SEC teams except Florida and South Carolina, LSU is a work in progress and a team that’s probably not as far along in some areas as sixth-year coach Paul Mainieri would like. But the framework for success appears to be in place if a handful of players find a groove as the season reaches its second month.
Back-to-back ugly losses to Appalachian State provided a wakeup call for the Tigers’ offense, and Mainieri didn’t sit idly by. After watching his team scratch out only one run in the final 18 innings against the Mountaineers – who are 9-2 this season – the LSU coach shook up the batting order to inject more speed at the top.
The result is that the first four hitters in the Tigers’ lineup are capable of stealing a base and contributing to manufacturing runs, especially in early innings when gaining a lead can be paramount.
Another tweak sharpened up LSU’s defense, with JaCoby Jones shifting from center field to second base and Jared Foster stepping in as the left fielder in place of Jackson Slaid. Those two moves make the Tigers more athletic in those spots and they don’t lose anything defensively with freshman Chris Sciambra in center.
Like the position players, LSU’s pitching staff has performed well in some places and has struggled in others.
The three-man sophomore weekend rotation will stay in place for now, although the Sunday job could wind up opening up for auditions after back-to-back wobbly outings by Kurt McCune.
Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades have been stellar and give LSU as good a 1-2 weekend punch as there is in the country. When McCune is good – as he was most of last season – he’s not far behind those two. When he’s bad, the still-taking-shape Tigers’ bullpen is thrust into duty a little sooner than preferred.
Nola has solidified his role as a mid-week starter (he gets the nod against the Green Wave Tuesday) and could stay in that spot while also being a versatile relief option on the weekend, similar to former Tigers Jared Bradford and Louis Coleman.
Glenn has been an intriguing roller-coaster ride so far, at times showing off the crackling velocity (11 strikeouts in 7 innings) that motivated Toronto to draft him in the 15th round out of Westbury Christian in Houston. But he has also struggled with the strike zone at times and needs to establish a secondary out pitch.
Bourgeois has been sharp in short relief stints so far with a 1.42 ERA and only two hits and one run allowed in 6.1 innings of work. The junior right-hander has weekend starting experience against SEC competition, but his endurance has yet to be tested after he spent the last 17 months rehabbing from elbow reconstruction surgery.
Besides Nola and Bourgeois, Nick Goody and Chris Cotton have been effective out of the bullpen, but that crew remains an area of concern overall. Goody has been the most effective closer with five scoreless appearances covering 6 innings. He has given up only three hits and has fanned 7 without a walk.
The polar opposite has been sophomore Nick Rumbelow, who began the season in the closer role. In 7.1 innings, Rumbelow has surrendered eight runs on 10 hits with six walks. He will likely be out of action the rest of this week with a sore arm.
Veterans Joe Broussard, Kevin Berry and have all gotten several appearances out of the pen (Broussard also has a start), but none of them has wowed so far. Among the group of freshman hurlers who have yet to throw a pitch, the most promising seems to be Carson Baranik, who was suspended for the first three weeks for a DUI arrest.
With the season only 12 games deep, there is still plenty of time – and plenty of options – for Mainieri to tinker and experiment, which is something he’s never been shy about doing.
Here’s a breakdown of who’s hot, who’s not and who needs to show progress among the position players for the Tigers as the SEC season gets closer.
Ty Ross reclaimed the starting job in the fall with a physical makeover as the impetus, and his start this season has underscored why Mainieri went with him.
Down 25 pounds and playing more athletically and with more confidence, Ross is hitting .344 with 10 RBIs. He produced a pair of bases-loaded hits last weekend and has given the Tigers some consistent punch so far from the bottom third of the batting order.
Senior Jordy Snikeris is the immediate backup, but isn’t likely to ever push for the starting job. Should Ross get dinged up, the more likely candidate to step in on a fulltime basis is freshman Tyler Moore, who hasn’t warmed up offensively but also hasn’t looked completely lost for a freshman.
Mason Katz has shouldered the job as the Tigers’ best hitter this season, and barring a long-term injury anywhere or a damaging swoon by either of the corner outfielders, he appears to be a fixture at first base. Katz is off to a torrid start, hitting .500 (20-for-40) and he leads LSU with 18 runs, 7 doubles and 3 home runs. Playing primarily first base, Katz has also been solid with his glove.
Should any shifting become necessary and Katz moves back to right field, Dozar is the best defensive first baseman on the roster and Moore is comfortable there as well. Both will have to show some punch offensively, though, to stay in the lineup against left handers.
Mainieri moved Jones back to the infield more for defensive purposes because junior Casey Yocom’s range wasn’t as effective as the Tigers’ coach was hoping it would be. The move came right after Jones moved into the two-hole in the batting order, which seems to be a more comfortable fit for the most athletic LSU player. Jones has yet to take off offensively, hitting .273, but he has flashed his speed as stole-base threat.
Yocom remains a viable option behind Jones, and Foster was a second baseman at Barbe. Should Mainieri really try to juggle things, Tyler Hanover could slide from third base to second – something to keep an eye on, especially if freshman Evan Powell happens to get some more at-bats and earns a look at third.
Austin Nola will play every meaningful inning at shortstop as long as he’s healthy simply because of how important an anchor he is on the infield, along with his penchant for coming through as a run producer. An 8-for-12 series at the plate last weekend upped Nola’s average to .359 and he has also walked 10 times, second on the team to Katz’s 11, which has led to 14 runs scored – also second to Katz. His glove work has been as good as expected and is a major reason why this spot is a team strength.
In the dire circumstance of a Nola injury, the candidates to step in are Hanover, Yocom and Didier.
Like Nola, Hanover has been very effective on defense – a marked improvement from last season and his freshman season when he struggled at times with the position. Paired with Nola to his left, there aren’t a lot of ground balls sneaking through the left side of the infield.
Mainieri’s decision to change the batting order has rejuvenated Hanover’s bat and he enters this week hitting .364 with 6 doubles and 11 RBIs. He looks more comfortable down in the batting order where he can be more aggressive early in counts instead of staying patient to try and draw walks. Because of his bat-handling skills, Hanover also gives Mainieri some options with moving runners to enhance the chance for the lower third of the order to chase runs home.
As with Nola at shortstop, Hanover’s job is locked down, and like Katz, he’ll always have a spot in the batting order. But his flexibility – he was the starting second baseman in 2010 – would allow Mainieri some wiggle room should any more adjustments become necessary.
Foster has latched onto the left-field job through on-the-job training and he’s athletic enough to keep making progress. After a quick start offensively, he has cooled off to .270 and he needs to readjust to what he needs to do from the leadoff spot in terms of working pitchers and being a pesky baserunner.
Right field is also locked down, assuming Raph Rhymes’ reconstructed elbow holds up. Next to Katz, Rhymes is LSU’s steadiest hitter and he leads the team with 17 RBIs, although only three of his team-high 21 hits have gone for extra bases. Rhymes is batting .457 and has struck out only twice in 53 plate appearances – a positive uncharacteristic trait of a cleanup hitter.
The Katz-Rhymes 3-4 combination is working very well right now because Rhymes has been productive with runners in scoring position. But don’t be surprised if Mainieri flip-flops the two if the offense grows stagnant.
Center field is a fluid situation at this point and one where a platoon or the hot hand might wind up being the MO.
While moving Jones to second base shored up the infield defense and there’s no dropoff defensively in center with Sciambra or Arby Fields, the offense does suffer considerably.
Between them, Sciambra and Fields are 4-for-34, although three of those hits are triples. Both give LSU optimal speed from the bottom of the batting order. Fields is a switch-hitter who might see time against left-handers if Sciambra – who swings from the left side – doesn’t show signs of adjusting soon.
There’s always the possibility of Jones going back to center, or Foster could evolve into a center fielder. If Foster moves to center, Slaid could also make another run as a left fielder.
Junior Alex Edward is still looming as a potential replacement in the outfield after recovering from a hamstring pull he suffered on opening night. It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that Mainieri could try Yocom or Powell in the outfield to see if they could find a comfort zone quickly out there.
Slaid seems to be locked in as the DH after starting several early-season games in left field and hitting with some success early on. What he does against right-handed pitching may determine whether Slaid is the full-time DH or he winds up sharing the job with Dozar, Didier or Moore. Slaid is 3-for-19 against righties this season, 5-for-9 against southpaws. All five of Dozar’s hits have come off right-handers.
Didier and Moore are intriguing options that could come into play because Mainieri might want to preserve Dozar as a reserve for his glove at first base in late-game situations – with Katz able to move out to right field.
Should Slaid falter offensively, Yocom, Powell and Edward are also waiting in the wings as right-handed DH options.