Going on the road presents the normal challenges this weekend for the No. 1-ranked LSU baseball team, although there is a little extra added on this weekend.
Yes, it’s the normal grind of an SEC weekend, which itself means plenty of intensity and the need for the Tigers to be at the top of their game.
This time, though, LSU takes on No. 2-ranked Kentucky in a battle of SEC co-leaders for three games at Cliff Hagan Stadium, starting Friday with a 5:30 p.m. first pitch.
Not only do the Tigers (31-7, 11-4 SEC) and Wildcats (33-5, 11-4) sit on top of the league standings, this is also the first 1-2 showdown for the Tigers since 2009 when they went on the road to take on top-ranked Georgia.
Want a few more wrinkles?
How about predicted temperatures in the 50s all weekend, a bandbox of a ballpark and an opponent leading the SEC in 10 offensive categories?
“We can’t wait to get there and get on the field,” junior Mason Katz said. “This weekend is going to be a lot of fun because we expect this to be just like the Arkansas and Florida series.”
Those series were LSU’s earlier matchups against top-3 opponents this season and the Tigers won five of the six games. To maintain that pace against UK will take a complete all-around performance.
The Wildcats began the season on a roll with 22 straight victories and haven’t cooled much since. They’re 23-2 at home – the losses to Louisville and Ole Miss – and have been rebuilt after a 25-30 season in 2011.
Kentucky’s strength is an offense that averages 7.4 runs a game and is hitting .317, which both lead the SEC. Freshmen Austin Cousino (.355, 13 doubles, 5 HR) and A.J. Reed (.339,7 doubles, 3 HR, 33 RBIs) have sparked the Cats, hitting first and third, respectively.
But there has also been a strong veteran presence with catcher Luke Maile (.336, 9 HR, 36 RBIs) and third baseman Thomas McCarthy (.305, 5 HR, 20 RBIs) solidifying the batting order.
Pitching has also made a quantum leap from last season, especially in the bullpen. Six relievers have appeared in at least 13 games and five have ERAs of 3.77 or lower. They all have specific roles that they fill well, paced by Trevor Gott, one of the top closers in the SEC with 7 saves.
The bullpen crew helps support a three-man starting rotation that has been up-and-down this season, although those three – Taylor Rogers (Friday), Jerad Grundy (Saturday) and Corey Littrell (Sunday) are a combined 12-2. Rogers and Grundy both have ERAs of 4.32 or higher.
Third-year coach Gary Henderson said the Wildcats, very similarly to LSU, are a sum of their parts rather a team led by starpower.
“The reason we’re turned things around is not one a simple answer,” he said. “We’ve had a drastically improved pitching staff and we’ve played drastically improved defense and those are two huge elements. We had an influx of freshmen and junior-college players who came in and have done a good job offensively with their talent and fitting in. But we also have a lot of guys back who spent the offseason determined to have a better experience.
“At this point and time, no matter what people might think of us, they have to realize we have a pretty good club. Nobody is giddy or full of themselves. We understand that we have five more weekends to play and this is the first of those.”
LSU is taking a very similar approach.
After two sub-.500 finishes in SEC play in 2010 and ’11, the Tigers are off to the best SEC start since 2003, in large part because of starting pitching, their own improved bullpen and clutch hitting at times.
That formula won’t change, although the confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium are reason for the LSU pitchers to take pause and perhaps adjust how they approach the UK hitters.
Led by Maile and Cameron Flynn (8 HR), the Wildcats rank second in the SEC with 41 home runs – most of them coming at home where no portion of the outfield fence is 400 feet away. Right field is particularly appealing to hitters, veering off from 350 feet to 310.
“They have a small ballpark and that has something to do with how well they’ve hit, but we respect them for that,” Friday-night starter Kevin Gausman said. “We know we have to quiet their bats.
“The focus is on living down in the zone, getting a lot of groundballs and pop flies. We’re not going to focus on the dimensions.”
Added LSU coach Paul Mainieri, “I don’t think you pitch differently. If they pop a fly-ball home run, you keep it in perspective and don’t get down on yourself.”
The dimensions are something the LSU hitters have to be cognizant of as well, but not to the point of distraction.
Playing at more cavernous Alex Box Stadium, the Tigers have belted only 19 home runs, led by Mason Katz’s 7. Grant Dozar is the only other LSU player with more than one long ball.
LSU does rank second in the league with 73 doubles, behind Kentucky (81).
“When you get good contact, things are going to turn out well for you anyway,” said Katz, who also paces the Tigers with 11 doubles. JaCoby Jones has 10. “We’ll have the same opportunity as their hitters, and however we get the job done, we want to help our pitchers out.”
Added shortstop Austin Nola, “You always look at the field when you first see if. We’ve all done that as long as we’ve played. You see if you can pull it out easily, and if you start thinking about that too much, it works against you.”
And there will be plenty working against LSU to begin with.
Besides all the other elements involved, the Kentucky athletic department will also honor the Wildcats’ 2012 national championship team throughout the weekend. National Player of the Year Anthony Davis is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Saturday.
But the primary challenge will be the UK players in baseball uniforms and that’s enough to have the Tigers’ attention.
“This is going to be a great series, but a tough series,” Mainieri said. “They’ve always had good ballplayers and they’re putting it together now.”