Life as an SEC baseball team means one thing. Enjoy whatever success you have quickly because the shelf life on euphoria from one week to the next isn’t real lengthy.
Then again, the chance to duplicate that success and even enhance it is right around the corner every weekend, too.
For LSU, those two notions collide right in front of them this week.
The 7th-ranked Tigers charged back into the SEC spotlight last week by sweeping Arkansas at home. To stay there and perhaps and maybe even claim a stake – however temporary it might be – as a national contender, LSU needs a similar performance on the road when it travels to Gainesville to tango with top-ranked Florida.
LSU (23-6, 6-3 SEC) and the Gators (24-5, 6-3) get their weekend a day earlier than usual with a 6:30 p.m. game Thursday to accommodate a national broadcast on ESPNU.
This is the Tigers’ second league road trip and another chance to show improvement away from the cozy environment of Alex Box Stadium.
Two weeks ago, LSU took one of three games at Auburn – dropping two one-run games before winning the finale by a single run. That came after very uncharacteristic back-to-back seasons of LSU going 4-11 on the SEC road.
The fact that this latest test comes against a Gators team that has spent all season atop the polls makes it especially more daunting, but the Tigers seem to be embracing that detail as much as anything else.
|Mainieri: 'We're playing our best ball. The kids are confident.'|
“We know this is going to be the greatest challenge we face this year, playing the No. 1 team in the country on the road,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We’re playing our best ball. The kids are confident.”
Confident and perhaps with the biggest chip on their shoulders since they were the SEC’s hunted in 2009.
When Mainieri met with the media Wednesday, he fielded several questions about being an underdog and the magnitude of this weekend.
“We’re LSU,” Mainieri said. “We’ve played in a lot of big games and we’re not really afraid of anything. We’ve seen it all.
“We’re going to Florida and we’re going to stand toe-to-toe with them and punch as hard as we can and see if we can score a few more runs than they do and win some games.”
That message is something Mainieri apparently delivered to his team as well.
As the Tigers’ bus for the airport was pulling out of the stadium parking lot Wednesday, Mainieri called for an abrupt stop and gathered the team around the Champions Plaza for an impromptu pep talk.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have a handful of veterans who have been through this drill a few times.
|Austin Nola: 'We have to make things happen with the bats.'|
“It’s baseball, so we just go out and play the same game we’ve been playing since we were little,” Nola said. “If we do that, we’ll compete with them every game of the weekend and see what happens.”
Also vital for the Tigers is a pitching staff that stacked up well against the Gators last season.
The resulting shuffle after Aaron Nola’s shoulder soreness prompted Mainieri to reinstall Kurt McCune in the rotation and he’ll take the mound in the series opener, followed by Kevin Gausman on Friday and Ryan Eades.
McCune was the starter in the series opener vs. Florida last season and stymied the No.1 Gators, limiting them to two runs on seven hits in seven innings before the bullpen faltered. Gausman was even better, giving up just one run in eight innings.
Eades didn’t start against Florida a year ago, but logged a pair of scoreless one-inning stints.
The onus is on McCune to get the Tigers off on the right foot, which coincides with his return to the rotation spot he lost after three consecutive ineffective starts on the weekend.
Like his other teammates, the sophomore right-hander is enthused by the challenge.
He recalled the environment last season when he took the mound in his first career SEC start in front of a spirited Box crowd buzzing with anticipation – so much so he had to step back and soak it in a few times.
McCune also spoke of how much he has learned the last three weeks out of the weekend rotation and the adjustments he made.
“I have more confidence in my fastball,” he said. “My arm angle is down a little bit, and the ball is a coming across little flatter. I’m a different pitcher from beginning of the year.”
And with what looms as his biggest start of this season, McCune is ready to embrace the challenge.
“I like being the first guy who faces a team,” said McCune, who was the Friday night starter much of last season on the way to a team-best 7-3 record. “I get the chance to set the tone and I like having that responsibility. It puts a little more pressure on me and helps me focus more.”
That combination of pressure and focus is something the Tigers have grown accustomed to.
With back-to-back one-run wins against Arkansas last week, LSU has five league wins by a single run this season. A year ago the Tigers were 2-7 in one-run SEC games.
“When you’re in those situations, you get a lot you get more comfortable because when you haven’t been in those situations and things change, you’re not sure how to respond,” Nola said.
“We have a lot of guys back who went through last year and that’s helped this year. We need to keep building on that.”
To do that, the Tigers will have to replicate what has worked for them to climb into a first-place tie in the SEC West after three weeks. Namely, the pitchers have to keep doing what they’ve done and the offense will have to scratch and claw for every run it can turn up.
Florida’s pitching staff ranks second in the SEC in ERA (2.93), while LSU is tied for the league lead in strikeouts with 263, with Gausman and Eades setting the pace.
Offensively the Gators and Tigers are similar in most areas, the exceptions being in how they generate runs. Florida is the SEC’s top power team with 41 bombs (14 in nine league games), while LSU is second in the SEC with 57 doubles.
The Tigers’ only league game when they’ve scored more than five runs was a 10-6 triumph against Arkansas last Friday. The Gators have scored five or more in seven of nine games.
“We have to make things happen with the bats,” Nola said. “We can’t expect our pitchers to keep shutting teams down like they have and expect to win. We need to string together some hits and put the pressure on Florida whenever we can.”
NOTES: Moore settling in at 1B