Welcome to the next round of the 2012 LSU baseball redemption tour.
Next up: Alabama.
The third-ranked Tigers (27-7, 8-4 SEC) have seized the first chances to erase some bad memories from last season in the last few weeks and now they take aim at another against the Crimson Tide.
LSU and Alabama (13-20, 4-8) get started at 7 p.m. Friday at Alex Box Stadium, followed by games at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and noon on Sunday.
“This year has been a lot about payback,” Tigers junior Mason Katz said. “We’re getting back at a lot of teams that beat us last season.”
In a 13-17 SEC season last spring that left LSU out of the league tournament and subsequently at home for the NCAA Tournament, every one of the losses stung in its own way.
Two that came near the end when the Tigers had seemingly gotten things turned around came in Tuscaloosa. Worse, those setbacks were shutouts (4-0 and 9-0) after LSU rolled to a 10-6 triumph in the series opener – the Tigers didn’t score a run in the final 22 innings of the series and absorbed back-to-back blankings vs. an SEC foe for the first time since 1982.
|Raph Rhymes: Expected to be back in action after missing three games with a concussion|
“We took it pretty harsh,” Tigers junior Raph Rhymes said. “We all remember it and it’s something we’re going to use.
Added LSU coach Paul Mainieri, “We remember that, basically, Alabama ruined our season for us last year.”
That should serve as high-level inspiration, much like getting swept by Florida and Arkansas did prior to the last two weekends when the Tigers took five of six games against those two opponents.
There’s a little fresher motivation available for the Tigers, though.
After staggering through the first three SEC weekends with only one victory, Alabama came to life last week and swept Auburn at home. Those three wins brought the Tide back into contention for an SEC Tournament spot right when it looked like they were about to fall off the map.
“It’s a very good thing for us that Alabama won their games last week and showed our players they need to play their very best baseball,” Mainieri said.
Same holds true for Alabama.
The Tide comes in ranked last in the SEC in team batting average (.255), runs scored (154), runs allowed (183) and team ERA (4.96).
Last week was the first time Alabama managed to avoid close-game losses in league play, and they won only their fourth game decided by one or two runs this season.
Still the Tide figures to present a different challenge than LSU has gotten the last few weeks.
Bama will start two freshmen left-handers on Saturday and Sunday, and freshman Taylor Guilbeau – a Zachary native – is also likely to be the first reliever out of the bullpen on Friday.
That bodes well for LSU, which has batted .315 against southpaws this season and especially three of the top hitters. Katz is hitting at a sizzling .583 pace (21 of 36) vs. lefties, Rhymes is at .387 (12 of 31) and JaCoby Jones is hitting .350 vs. lefthanders (14 of 40) compared to .228 against right-handers.
The Tide’S Friday starter, Trey Pilkington, throws from the right side. But if he struggles, Guilbeau would be on tap.
How Mainieri adjusts the lineup will be a key, particularly if Rhymes is limited.
Last Friday Rhymes was hit in the head by a pitch and he has battled blurred vision, dizziness and headaches all week. After missing the last three games, Rhymes went through an extensive workout Friday, and responded via text message late Thursday night that he has been cleared and is ready to play this weekend.
“If we do play Raph, the prudent thing may be to DH him instead of playing him in the outfield,” Mainieri said of the SEC’s leading hitter (.465).
“If we have to DH him, it may have a domino effect on some other moves we need to make.”
There aren’t a whole host of options to choose from right now. Alex Edward is still out of action with a sore hamstring, leaving one less right-handed bat off the bench.
With an outfield of Jared Foster in left field, Arby Fields in center and Katz in right, inserting another right-handed bat would require a platoon at first base, where freshman Tyler Moore has emerged as the regular starter.
One option started to take shape Thursday, with senior Jordy Snikeris working out at first base. A catcher by trade, Snikeris has seven hits in his last 12 at-bats and has driven in a run in each of his last three starts.
|Snikeris: Might see time at first base against Alabama's left-handed pitchers.|
“I’m getting more used to it,” Snikeris said. “It’s a new position, but I’m pretty comfortable and I think I can handle it.”
After two weeks of dominating the SEC’s elite, LSU finds itself in a new position as the frontrunner in the West Division.
Like Snikeris, the Tigers are eager to see if they can adjust well to their new role.
“We’ve got things going and had to work hard to get into this position,” Katz said. “Now we need to keep playing hard and get our bats going and see if we stay here.”