Expected lull or bothersome trend?
For LSU’s three talented weekend starting pitchers, that has become a question the last few weeks.
And with a stretch run of nine SEC games that will help shape how the fourth-ranked Tigers finish – and position themselves for the postseason – there’s no better time to get some answers.
LSU launches that tricky nine-game crescendo this weekend at 24th-ranked Ole Miss, starting with a 6:30 p.m. game Friday at Swayze Field.
Led by Gausman’s 7-1 record and SEC-best 97 strikeouts, the Tigers’ trio is 17-4 and a major reason why LSU (36-10) is tied for the SEC lead with a 14-7 mark.
In the last 11 starts among the three, though – four each by Gausman and Eades and three by Nola – they haven’t been as lock-down dominant.
Over the last 60.1 innings, the three have allowed 80 hits, six home runs and 44 runs – 37 earned for a 5.49 ERA. That’s 2.09 higher than their season combined ERA of 3.40.
Half of the 74 runs those three have given up all season has come in the last month.
Gausman has surrendered 10 hits in back-to-back starts, which matches his career-high. Eades has only one quality start in his last four outings. Nola has surrendered four runs in his last two outings, most of the damage coming in two frames, and has been touched for a home run in all of his three outings since coming back from a sore shoulder.
Reason for alarm? Not so much, just motivation to hone back in.
“Our hitters have bailed us out the last few weekends,” said Gausman, who has offset the 10-hit assaults by striking out 20 in his last two outings. “We need to pitch the way we did the first half of the season. We were pretty dominant.”
Gausman is the most experienced of the three weekend starters and has a built-in advantage of having gone through a rough patch of growing pains last season when he hit fatigue and endured back-to-back rough starts against Georgia and Ole Miss.
He said he sees his fellow weekend starters still throwing as well, but said they have to learn how to fight through being tired and “not trusting their stuff,” especially on two-strike counts when they need to finish hitters off.
“Those guys are very good pitchers, but you have to learn how to get guys out when you don’t feel your best or have your best stuff,” Gausman said. “I had to figure that out last season and it’s just something you have to go through.”
After rolling through seven starts with a 1.91 ERA, Eades has seemed to hit that same kind of wall. He has fanned only one hitter in three of his last four starts after averaging 5.6 in seven outings before that.
Observing Gausman last year is giving Eades a blueprint to follow right now as he navigates choppy waters.
“I’m about where he was this time last year and it helps me to watch him and see how he gets through tough innings now and still stays confident,” Eades said.
“You just have to work hard stay and stay focused. I may have been thinking a little too much out there instead of going out there and letting it rip. I have to be focused on having better put-away pitches and staying ahead of guys.”
Likewise, Nola has wrestled with getting third strikes at times and has a unique hurdle to overcome.
While Gausman and Eades command the strike zone well, they also go through patches of walking hitters. Nola, on the other hand, is almost always around the strike zone and has issued only three unintentional walks in 55.1 innings.
Even when he’s ahead of hitters and ready to close out at-bats, they know they can still count on him throwing a pitch to hack at.
“I’ve got to make better two-strike pitches and keep it out of the zone,” Nola said. “There are times when I need to get hitters guessing and chasing bad pitches.”
How Gausman, Eades and Nola fare this weekend will play a big part in whether the Tigers can maintain their spot as the West Division leader. Arkansas is three games behind, while Ole Miss, Auburn and Mississippi State are four games out of first place.
The Rebels enter this weekend with a .307 team batting average and are scoring 6 runs a game. LSU has surrendered 6 runs or more in seven league games and is 1-6 in those contests.
As good as the Tigers’ bullpen has been – and that group has unquestionably been a difference-maker this season – LSU needs its three weekend horses to regain the form they had for two months.
“We just want to be and dominant as we can later in the season,” Nola said. “Our hitters want the same thing, and they’ve really come on strong. Now we need to get back to pitching like we were.”
Here is the roster the Tigers will play with this 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, Jared Foster, Alex Edward, Beau Didier