With the stretch run at hand, the LSU baseball team launches a five-game home stand starting Wednesday when Southeastern Louisiana visits Alex Box Stadium.
And as meaningful as the first 41 games have been for the third-ranked Tigers, nobody is about to exhale.
LSU (32-9) and the Lions (28-13) collide at 6:30 p.m. with the game broadcast on CST in Louisiana markets.
The Tigers have four SEC weekends remaining and those 12 games are the biggest keys to where the postseason road will take them.
But Wednesday’s game against Southeastern, next Tuesday vs. Tulane and May 15 against Nicholls State – all at the Box – are games the Tigers have to approach with the same kind of mindset and intensity required on the weekend.
“Every game is going to have significant impact on all of our goals,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
So there won’t be any makeshift lineups or lessened expectations against the Lions, a feisty team battling for potential postseason position in the Southland Conference.
LSU might still approach the game with a whole-staff pitching style, with sophomore Joe Broussard getting the start. But it will be with a focus on winning and avoiding the first three-game losing streak of the season.
That means junior left-hander Brent Bonvillain will likely play a role similar to the one he has carved out recently as a long reliever the last few weeks.
“Every game is high pressure,” said Bonvillain, who spent a season each at Nicholls State and Delgado Community College. “In the other places I’ve been, you might have an off game where you don’t play a quality team and if you’re off it might not matter. Here it’s always high pressure and your mistakes get amplified. You have thousands of fans watching you. It’s tough, but it’s fun to be a part of.”
Tyler Hanover has been part of the Tigers’ success for the last four years and he showed positive signs of snapping out of a slump over the weekend at Kentucky.
The senior third baseman was 5-for-11 against the Wildcats and showed a knack for starting innings with a hit – a key if he continues to hit in the two-hole behind speedy Arby Fields.
Hanover’s season average crept back up to .307 with is hot streak after it had plummeted to .291 at the end of LSU’s weekend sweep against Alabama when he was 2-for-9.
“I’ve been thinking a lot at the plate, which any baseball player knows you can’t do,” Hanover said. “I tried to clear my head and focus on where the pitcher was releasing the ball and tried to swing at pitches I could drive.
“You’ve just got to come out every day and keep grinding. I did feel a lot better and more comfortable at the plate.”
How comfortable any of the Tigers feel Wednesday could hinge greatly on how well Southeastern starter Josh Janway throws.
The Baton Rouge native is back on the mound as a starter after relinquishing his weekend role with three straight rocky outings in Southland play. The senior right-hander surrendered 10 runs on 17 hits in 11.1 innings against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, UT-Arlington and Lamar and returned to the bullpen, where he was an effective closer in 2010.
“He’s a competitor,” said LSU outfielder Alex Edward, a former teammate at Parkview Baptist. “He always been and that’s just his nature. He’s not going to back down from a challenge, and that means we have to come out and compete hard. He’s going to pitch with something to prove.”
Same is likely true for the rest of the Lions, who have put together a solid season in the shadow of LSU and Tulane.
Southeastern owns notable wins this season against Missouri Valley Conference frontrunner Indiana State (3), Mississippi State (2) and Texas State (3) and comes in with eight wins in the last 12 games after taking the last two weekend series in league play.
“Southeastern has a very typical tough ball club,” said Mainieri, who is 5-1 vs. the Lions in his tenure. LSU clipped Southeastern 7-3 on March 1 last season when the Lions committed six errors.
“We have to come out focused and we have to play well to have the best chance to beat them.”
The Tigers dropped back-to-back games at Kentucky over the weekend and haven’t lost three straight all season. Despite losing that series, LSU is 11-3 in April and has won 15 of its last 18 games.
Sunday’s 7-6 setback was the first time in 3-0 games when LSU has scored four runs or more and lost.
“These kids want to win so badly, so they were disappointed in losing the last two games against Kentucky, but it’s hard for me to complain when we competed so hard all weekend and did some things good things offensively,” Mainieri said. “We were in that game Sunday and had the lead and Kentucky came through with clutch hits and just beat us. We didn’t give it away. So I think our frame of mind is fine. We know there’s a lot of season left and we’ve put ourselves in a good position to get where we want to.”
Jones will be back in the lineup
After getting benched early in LSU’s loss at Kentucky on Sunday, sophomore second baseman Jacoby Jones is expected to be back in the lineup against Southeastern and beyond.
The talented Mississippi native didn’t aggressively go after a sharply hit ground ball in the third inning against the Wildcats, an at-bat when the erased a 1-0 lead with three two-out runs after the ball Jones didn’t pursue went through for a double.
When the Tigers came in between innings, Jones was lifted for junior Casey Yocom.
Mainieri wasn’t sure Monday if Jones would be back on the field Wednesday, but he had a more concrete answer after the two held a lengthy meeting on the Tigers’ off day.
“It’s a constant process with kids to help them grow as players and as people,” Mainieri said. “JaCoby comes from a very small town and things came easily to him his whole life. He’s always been the biggest kid and the best athlete in every sport and he’s been able to excel. Now he’s in the SEC and in a bigger pond, and he’s not succeeding at the same rate. Every once in a while, he has a hard time dealing with that. He’s made a lot of improvement in how to deal with that, but he has a ways to go.
“Deep down, I think the kid cares about the right stuff. He just sometimes doesn’t show it the right way. There’s no denying that his physical tools are as good as anybody on our team. In all honesty, I don’t think we’d have much chance to get to Omaha if he doesn’t play up to his capabilities. He’s got to be a vital part of our team.”
Mainieri said the bone of contention with Jones’ play boiled down to whether he was trying hard enough behind freshman pitcher Aaron Nola, or if a recent offensive slump had him distracted.
Since raising his average to .296 on April 5 against Florida, Jones is 4-for-40 and has scored only 5 runs in the last 11 games. His average has tumbled to .245, which prompted Mainieri to shift him from the leadoff spot to the nine-hole.
But after he grounded out in the third inning Sunday and dropping to 0-for-8 in the UK series, Mainieri said he thought Jones took his frustration from the batter’s box onto the field.
“I thought that’s what happened on Sunday and that’s what frustrated me,” Mainieri said. “Aaron Nola was out there just competing as hard as he could for his team and the least his teammates could do behind them was do give the same kind of effort.
“When I didn’t see that, I thought that he had carried his bat out to the field and it really upset me because he was putting his own individual frustrations in front of the team. When I talked to him (Monday), I’m not so sure that was the case. I think he just made a poor judgment on how to make a tough play.”
As far as Mainieri is concerned, the punishment of sitting the final six innings on Sunday was enough.
“It’s over now,” Mainieri said. “I think he’s learned a lot and he knows he’s got to go out there and play as hard as he can on every play. We need him to be out there and playing well for us to be the best team we can be.”