Now things get a little interesting.
LSU has navigated the first two weeks of SEC play with some success and some frustration, with five one-run games and a 3-3 record.
The gauntlet takes an abrupt upturn the next two weeks, starting Friday when the 12th-ranked Tigers (19-6) open a three-game series at Alex Box Stadium with No. 3-ranked Arkansas (22-3, 5-1 SEC).
After three games against the Razorbacks, LSU heads to Gainesville to face top-ranked Florida for three.
The next six league games won’t make or break the Tigers’ season. But a strong run could ignite momentum they haven’t enjoyed in the SEC since 2009. A slide right now would put LSU in comeback mode like it has faced much of the last two league seasons.
Either way, the competitive juices ought to be flowing nicely starting Friday.
“We know this is when we have to turn it up,” senior shortstop Austin Nola said. “This is what playing in the SEC is all about.”
Against Arkansas, the Tigers know to brace for close games that go down to the wire.
Since Paul Mainieri arrived, the annual battles with the Razorbacks have been ultra-competitive. In 15 regular-season games, 10 have been decided by one or two runs. The Tigers have won six of those, the Hogs four – including all three last year in their first sweep of LSU since 2004. That was also the last home series the Tigers lost to Arkansas.
“Every year we have really tight, hard-fought games,” said Mainieri, who also guided the Tigers to a pair of lopsided wins against the Razorbacks at the 2009 College World Series. “The teams are really evenly matched and the coaches manage the game very similarly.”
|Dave Van Horn: 7-10 against Paul Mainieri since 2007.|
Arkansas’ Dave Van Horn has followed a similar path to Mainieri, taking a Northern program to unprecedented to success when he guided Nebraska to a pair of CWS appearances and then heading South where he has led the Hogs to Omaha twice.
Whatever the reason, the two coaches approach the game similarly.
“For the most part, I kind of know what he’s going to do; it’s just a matter of stopping them,” Mainieri said. “He probably figures the same thing about us. It just makes for very good baseball. They’re very fundamentally sound, and their kids are very tough hard-nosed players, and I think the same thing is true with our team.”
The Razorbacks and Tigers aren’t exactly mirror images of each other this season, but they’re close.
Arkansas boasts one of the top pitching staffs in the SEC and leads the league in ERA (2.53) and ranks second in opponent batting average (.211) and hits given up (176).
The Tigers don’t stack up quite as strong as team-wise, but Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades have been dazzling all season and have permitted only six runs in 27 SEC innings between them. Freshman Aaron Nola shrugged off a rugged first inning against Mississippi State and has allowed only four earned runs in his last 12.1 SEC innings of work.
Gausman struggled through his last outing with five walks (one intentional) in five innings and said he’s ready to get back on the mound this week, knowing that every glitch could be costly in SEC games that are razor close.
“We know a home run in the second inning could be the difference between winning and losing a game,” said Gausman (4-0, 1.54 ERA). “Last week taught me to slow down. I was rushing toward home plate and rushing in my head. I hadn’t had that kind of control issues since I was in high school.
“I have to be better for my team because we know the Friday night guy for the other team is always going to be tough in this league.”
Offensively, LSU is marginally better than the Hogs over the course of the season, but Arkansas has scored 7 runs or more in four of six SEC games. The Razorbacks top the league with 130 walks and rank second with 36 stolen bases.
The Tigers’ team batting average – .302 overall – has tumbled to .246 in league games and they have managed only 17 runs in six games, never more than 4.
“We need to relax a little bit in these SEC games and find a way to make things happen early in the game,” said first baseman/right fielder Mason Katz. “We know all these games are going to be close and intense, so every at-bat is going to be important whether it’s in the first inning with nobody on base or in the eighth or ninth with the bases loaded.”
With the closeness and intensity likely to unfold the next three days, any edge either team can scrounge up could be beneficial.
|Mason Katz: Hitting .389 (7-for-18) with 5 runs, 5 RBIs in the last five games.|
For LSU, that may not be all that tough.
In last year’s three losses to the Razorbacks, the Tigers lost the opener on a home run and an unearned run, dropped the second game when they couldn’t hold onto a 3-0 lead they had grabbed in the top of the 9th inning and then gave away the third on a 9th-inning run after Austin Nola forged a 4-4 tie with a grand slam.
Those three losses triggered a stretch of nine losses in 12 games that left the Tigers’ hole in the SEC standings (7-14) too deep to climb out of despite a late-season surge.
“We had three close games that we could’ve won and we ended up losing all three at their place,” Katz said. “We remember them and try to make the changes so that maybe we can win those games by a run instead of losing them.”