In one of the SEC’s most hitter-friendly environments, the LSU pitching staff will have to adjust its approach to a degree this weekend, although being as dominant as Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades have been doesn’t require much tweaking.
But the Auburn offense has some different layers that will give LSU a little more to think about.
The 8th-ranked Bayou Bengals take to the road for the first time in SEC play this season when they venture to the Plains of Alabama to take on AU at Samford Stadium at Plainsman Park. The teams will meet at 6 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
For LSU (17-4, 2-1 SEC), the challenge a talented pitching staff faces is unlike anything it will likely to see the rest of this season,
On the surface, Auburn (13-8, 2-1) has been effective offensively, ranking third in the SEC with a .311 team batting average (LSU is second at .315) and second in on-base average.
That second statistic is a key because AU has stolen 57 bases – more than any other league team has attempted – in 77 attempts, which is nearly twice as many as any of the nine other SEC teams. Auburn is also tied with South Carolina for the top spot in sacrifice bunts with 22.
Simply put, when AU runners get on base, that’s when the action is just getting started.
“The thing we really talked about was how aggressive they are on the base paths,” Friday night starter Kevin Gausman said. “That’s something we have to really focus on and be conscious of the whole weekend.
“We know they’re going to try and play their game and get us out of a rhythm.”
The biggest part of that rhythm will be staying calm when runners reach base.
There will have to be a focus on changing the pace and speed of delivery to the plate – mixing up looks baserunners gets to prevent them from picking up on trends.
“That’s something that we really have talked about since early in the fall – our need as a pitching staff to be able to control the running game,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “We try to get our guys to do some things that are conducive to stopping the running game.
“We know that’s their game is to try and put pressure on the defense We have to be aware of that and we have to give (LSU catcher Ty Ross) a great opportunity to throw runners out.”
The ultimate defense, of course, is to not allow hitters to reach base.
LSU’s three weekend starters (Gausman, Eades and Nola) are liming foes to a combined .210 batting average and have issued only 13 walks in 94.1 innings among them. But keeping the base paths clear for nine innings isn’t realistic.
“We’re not going to be able to keep everybody off the bases,” Dunn said. “That would obviously be what we’ll try to do: Make quality pitches so they can’t get quality swings. When they do get on, we have to make sure we’re in control of the situation and not let them control us.”
Taking outs when the AU hitters are willing to give them up is also vital.
In a 4-3 win against Mississippi State last week, the Bulldogs managed to make things interesting in the ninth inning when Ross fielded a sacrifice bunt and threw to second instead of taking the sure out.
“The biggest thing that creates big innings is in a bunting situation when you don’t get outs,” Dunn said. “We have to make sure that when they give us outs, we take outs and then pitch from there.”
The onus isn’t on the LSU pitchers alone.
Although LSU the opening series against Mississippi State last weekend, the Tigers managed only 21 hits in 28 innings, just three for extra bases. Hitting in the clutch helped mask the offensive woes somewhat in the first two games, but abandoned LSU in the third when it hit into four double plays and went 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position in a 7-1 loss.
Auburn’s pitching hasn’t been spectacular this season, ranking in the middle of the SEC in most categories. And AU is 11th in the SEC in team defense with a .962 fielding percentage.
Last week, though, Auburn won a pair of one-run decisions at Ole Miss and limited the Rebels to seven runs in three games. AU followed that with a 7-0 shutout against South Alabama.
“We’re going to try to take the mentality we had Tuesday (in a 15-5 win against Southern) – come out swinging hard, let it fly and have some fun,” said first baseman/right fielder Mason Katz, who leads the Tigers with 4 home runs and 8 doubles.
LSU enters the weekend second in the SEC in average and runs scored (8 per game). But the Tigers scored only 12 run in three games against Auburn last season at home.
One key, as always, will be whether LSU can grab momentum early. In both wins against State last week, LSU snared an early lead. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ starting pitchers have surrendered runs in the first only once in the last 14 games – the Bulldogs’ five against Nola last Sunday. Seven times the foe has gone in order in the first.
“The first inning, for the most part, our guys shut everybody down,” Katz said. “It’s our turn get on top early.”