In a league like the SEC with the rich history and long-term relationships that have been forged through the years, it’s inevitable that some memories are going to play a prominent role every time two teams rekindle their relationship.
That’s certainly the case for LSU and Georgia on the diamond.
The third-ranked Tigers and Bulldogs square off in a three-game series at Alex Box Stadium, starting at 7 p.m. Friday, which stirs up those memories.
But the most recent past looms as important as anything that’s happened through the years as LSU (33-9, 12-4 SEC) takes aim at stretching its West Division lead.
Nobody is more motivated by the still-fresh memories of a series loss in Athens than Tigers’ ace Kevin Gausman.
Gausman gets the ball in the opener looking to erase the memory of his start last season when he faced only 15 hitters and left trailing 6-1 in the third inning – the briefest and worst outing of his career.
“Oh, I’ve definitely thought about that,” said Gausman, who is 7-1 and tied for the SEC lead with 88 strikeouts. “Even my dad told me I need to pay those guys back for what they did to me last season. That was probably my worst start. I was all over the place.”
As much as Gausman might be motivated against the Bulldogs, it’s more important that he do what he has most of the season – set the tone for the weekend.
While LSU comes into the weekend leading the West by three games and trailing Kentucky by a game for the overall league lead, Georgia is scrapping for position.
The Bulldogs (24-18, 8-10) are in the middle of the SEC pack, within striking range of the leaders but also only two games in front of last-place Alabama.
After taking a series from Ole Miss two weeks ago, Georgia was a handful for Florida last week, losing the opener 3-2 in 16 innings but bouncing back to win on Saturday. The Gators took the series with a 6-3 win in the finale.
Including the marathon last Friday, the Bulldogs have lost four league games by one or two runs.
“This is like any other SEC weekend and we’re going to have to really play well because Georgia has a lot of talent,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “They’ve lost some tough games, but they really seem to playing good baseball right now.”
The Tigers haven’t been a joy for opponent lately, either, especially at home.
LSU is 12-3 in April, despite dropping two of three games at Kentucky last weekend. In SEC home games this season, the Tigers are 8-1.
For those trends to continue, Gausman – as always – is a big key.
The 9-5 loss to Georgia last year was a turning point for the sophomore righty, who has been consistently clocked in the 95-100 mph range in his last three starts.
“Last season when I threw against these guys, I was just throwing and not pitching at all,” Gausman said. “I feel a lot more confident this year. I’m able to slow the game down, and when something happens, it’s not going to have the kind of snowball effect it did last season.”
Gausman has adjusted to SEC hitters figuring him out as well.
With SEC hitters prone to coming out more aggressive in series openers, Gausman has been susceptible to allowing more hits and runs than he likes. In three of his last four starts, Gausman has given up 4 runs or more, but he has persevered by averaging 9.5 strikeouts a game in six league starts.
|Raph Rhymes: Takes an SEC-best .497 batting average into the weekend|
“In this Friday games, the offenses really want to get going and set the tone for the weekend, so they come out swinging the bats,” Gausman said. “When I was starting on Saturday last season, guys worked the counts more and tried to get on base any way they could. Now I have to adjust I approach the hitters. I’ve been leaving some pitches up in the wrong situations, and I have to learn from that.”
LSU hitters have adapted similarly.
After scoring three runs in SEC openers against Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas, the Tigers have scored 7, 10 and 5 in their last three. That’s a key because LSU is 30-1 this spring when they score 4 runs or more.
“We’ve got the kind of offense that when guys are up there competing on every pitch, we can pretty tough to beat,” said left fielder Raph Rhymes, who brings an SEC-best .497 batting average into the weekend. “If we get everybody going at once, we’re a pretty good offense.”
|Ty Ross: Looking to heat back up after a six-game slump|
Catcher Ty Ross is one of the hitters who needs to get revved back up. He’s 3-for-22 in the last six games with only one RBI, which has prompted Mainieri to drop him to the eight-hole.
Ross is still hitting .300 overall, and more importantly his defense has remained solid.
“Of course always you always want to be productive for your team, but my biggest job is to hold it down behind the plate – blocking balls, throwing runners out, fielding bunts and being a leader out there,” Ross said. “We have enough hitters on this team that if I’m doing my job behind the plate, we’re still going to win games whether I’m hitting or not.”
Still, giving the Tigers a run producer in the bottom third of the order wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“I want to be that guy in the bottom of the lineup who’s making it hard for a pitcher to take a break,” Ross said.
Accident gives LSU quartet a scare
A one-car auto accident Thursday involved four Tigers and cost at least one a spot on the weekend roster.
Center fielder Arby Fields was driving Evan Powell’s car after those two, Tyler Hanover and Jared Foster had finished a weight lifting session. On a gravel road between the football practice facility and the Box, Fields lost control of the car and slammed into a utility pole.
All four players were shaken up, Mainieri said. Foster suffered a cut on his nose and was woozy enough after a visit to the doctor for the LSU medical crew to recommend that he sit out against Georgia.
Here is the LSU roster for the weekend:
Position players – Ty Ross, Jordy Snikeris, Tyler Moore, Grant Dozar, JaCoby Jones, Casey Yocom, Austin Nola, Beau Didier, Tyler Hanover, Evan Powell, Raph Rhymes, Arby Fields, Mason Katz, Jackson Slaid, Alex Edward