Now it gets real

After a month of baseball, LSU and Mississippi State get the SEC season started.

Even as pragmatic and cautious as LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri can be, he had a hard time concealing his excitement for the next phase of the Tigers’ 2012 season on Thursday.


Of course that excitement is based on the common sense that smacked LSU squarely in the face last May when the NCAA Tournament field was unveiled without the Tigers included.


For the next 10 weekends, the LSU season will take shape and be defined as the Tigers wade though the SEC schedule – starting Friday when 20th-ranked Mississippi State comes (14-5) to Alex Box Stadium to open a three-game series against the 10th-ranked Tigers (14-3).


And Mainieri, after some requisite coachspeak about every game counting the same, let his guard down a bit and acknowledged that the next 30 league contests are what his team’s year be judged by.


“I’m a typical coach and I just preach to the players that every game means the same and to take them one at a time,” Mainieri said. “But now that we’ve gotten through the first 17 games and the next team on the schedule happens to be an SEC opponent, I guess you can say that we’re pretty excited about what’s in front of us.”


Equal parts excited and realistic.


Last season the Tigers entered the league fray with a 16-1 record and sky-high expectations, but lost five of their first six SEC games – getting swept at home by No. 1-ranked Florida and then two of three at Georgia. Three of those losses were by one run and all but one were competitive.


But the 1-5 stumble left LSU playing uphill the rest of the league season and it wound up 13-17, ninth place in the standings and left out of the SEC Tournament.


“It would be nice to get off to a much better start this year,” Mainieri said. “The SEC games just weigh so heavily in everything.


“You can’t overestimate a good start in your mind because no matter what happens, there’s still going to be a long way to go.”


In strange twist of fate, the Tigers begin the league campaign against not just on old rival, but the team that snuffed out their late-season charge and prevented LSU from claiming a spot in the SEC Tournament, and ultimately the NCAA Tournament.


The Bulldogs rallied with two runs in the ninth inning to win the middle game of a series in Starkville last May after the Tigers thumped them 17-1 in the series opener. State finished 14-16 in the league – a game in front of LSU – and the Bulldogs got an NCAA berth. They played well in the postseason, winning the Georgia Tech regional and pushing Florida to three games in a Super Regional.

Mason Katz: Hitting .390 and leads Tigers with 3 HRs and 7 2Bs this season


“There’s already a rivalry between the two of us, but that series last year left a bad taste in out mouth because we know we let one slip away,” junior Mason Katz said. “If we sweep them, we go to the SEC Tournament and who knows what happens. But that one game cost us and maybe we can see last year as motivation and kick it into gear in the SEC and get hot instead of waiting.”


Before LSU could think about coming out strong, though, it had to regain its strength after a week of dealing with a widespread stomach virus most of this week.


Sixteen Tigers were afflicted by the bug Sunday night and Monday and when they beat Northwestern State 13-0 on Wednesday, Mainieri said most of them were at about 75%.


Several of the sick players were unable to eat for several days and some lost substantial weight – Austin Nola unwillingly shed 11 pounds.


With a few more days to recover, the Tigers should be ready to go.


“We’re all going to be healthy by then because we know how important these games are,” said Nola, who started Wednesday and collected a pair of hits to up his average to .333. He leads LSU with 13 walks.


“It’s always fun to play Mississippi State because they get after it like we do and we have a lot of respect for them.”


The Bulldogs who take the diamond at the Box are a much different looking crew than the senior-laden team that LSU tangled with in Starkville. In fact, State looks a lot different than the team it began this season with.


Four Bulldog position players are out for this weekend: Outfielders C.T. Bradford (shoulder), Taylor Stark (hamstring) and Brent Brownlee (knee) and third baseman Darryl Norris (knee).


The State pitching staff is also juggled, and LSU will face either Chris Stratton or Caleb Reed in the opener, neither of whom has started a game this season. Stratton has settled in as a long reliever and has a 4-0 record, while Reed has primarily been the Bulldogs’ closer with 5 saves. Stratton started 14 games last season and recorded 76 strikeouts in 76 innings.


In the series finale last season, Stratton started but lasted only 2 innings. Reed came out of the bullpen and logged a career-high 7 innings. It’s possible State coach John Cohen could call on both of them again.


“We’ve seen both guys and they come at you in different ways, so we have to be prepared to adjust,” said Katz, hitting .390 with team-highs with 3 home runs and 7 doubles. “We saw Reed in the Cape Cod League last summer, and he can throw one inning or four or seven like he did last season. And Stratton is long and lanky and throws hard.”


Ryan Eades: Will get the ball Saturday against Mississippi State

Regardless of who the Bulldogs trot out to the mound, they will have their hands full with the LSU pitching staff.


Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades will be in their normal Friday and Saturday spots and those two have both logged four consecutive quality starts. The Sunday starter will be freshman Aaron Nola, making his SEC debut after winning three straight mid-week starts.


The Tigers bullpen has also steadied itself after a rough patch of three games against Appalachian State, Grambling State and McNeese State. In 17.2 innings since those three meltdowns, LSU relievers have allowed 14 hits and 6 runs – only 2 runs given up when the Tigers had the lead.


The pitching staff as a whole has been the strength for LSU with five shutouts this season, more than any SEC team, with 157 strikeouts and only 35 walks in 153 innings.


“Our rotation is formidable,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s going to be a challenge for any team that plays us running up against Gausman, Eades and Nola and I think our bullpen is rounding into shape as well.”


As strong as the Tigers’ pitching figures to be, they will still need to generate consistent offense. Last season LSU was shut out four times in SEC games, the most in program history.


The Tigers have been blanked once this season and scored only one run on two other occasions, but enter the SEC campaign averaging 8.5 runs a contest, third in the league.


“Who hits in the clutch, who pitches in the clutch and who makes plays: That’s the kind of baseball we like to play around here and that’s what we have focus on now more,” said Austin Nola. “We don’t have to remind anybody on this team how much different these SEC games are.”

NOTES: Rhymes producing big offensive stats

ON DECK: Mississippi State at LSU

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