There are low points in every season when a player or a team realizes that maybe things just weren’t meant to be.
As the LSU baseball team slogged through a frustrating 2011 season that abruptly ended after a strong finish, the lowest of low moments came on a road trip to Vanderbilt.
With the Tigers in a malaise when they lost nine of 12 games and tumbled toward the bottom of the SEC standings, the College World Series-bound Commodores dominated LSU, sweeping the series with very little resistance.
To say that weekend has stuck with the Tigers – especially the veterans – might be an understatement.
To say that’s the exact point when LSU’s players made a collective conscious effort that things were going to get better might not be a stretch.
The third-ranked Tigers (38-11, 16-8 SEC) wraps up their home 2012 SEC schedule this weekend when Vanderbilt (24-24, 11-13) visits Alex Box Stadium, with the opener slated for 7 p.m. Friday.
Things have changed dramatically for LSU since that lost weekend in Nashville late last April.
The Tigers won 10 of their final 12 SEC games to finish last season, missing the league tournament, but setting a precedent for this season when they have surged back with a vengeance and going into the final two weeks of the season tied with South Carolina for first place.
“Last year at Vanderbilt left a sour taste in our mouths,” senior third baseman Tyler Hanover season. “They had a very good team, but we felt like we should’ve been able to compete a little better. That made us realize we all had to work a lot harder.”
Hard work has paid off so much that the Tigers can approach this portion of the season in a much different frame of mind than the last two.
That mindset: There’s a lot of season left to play, with an SEC Tournament berth clinched, an NCAA Tournament spot assured and the potential to make a run to the College World Series.
At the end of each of the last two campaigns, LSU was relegated to scramble mode just to punch a ticket to Hoover and the SEC’s postseason party – something the Tigers weren’t able to do last year.
“This year our destiny is held by us. If we go out there and execute our game plan and do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll have a lot more season to play. That feels a whole lot better than what we’ve been through the last two years.”
The reasons for LSU being in that position are no mystery. The Tigers have gotten much better pitching this spring than the last two seasons – both from the rotation and from a bullpen that has gone from Achilles’ heel to being a team strength.
Clutch hitting has also emerged as a key ingredient, which is a bit surprising.
LSU lost one of the best hitters in the program’s recent history when Mikie Mahtook left after being selected in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft, creating a major hole for an offense that struggled to be consistent a year ago.
But led by the nation’s top hitter in Raph Rhymes, and a talented wingman in Mason Katz, the Tigers are leading the SEC in runs scored (326) and stand third in SEC games only (118).
While Rhymes and Katz shoulder much of the load, it’s been the reliability of hitters like Nola, Hanover, Ross and even occasionally Dozar coming through in clutch situations that have helped.
In the last few weeks alone, Nola has banged two of his four home runs to give LSU an eighth-inning lead against Georgia and then cap a five-run frame against Ole Miss in a decisive third-game win at Ole Miss.
Likewise, Dozar drove in the final two runs of the Tigers’ 4-3 13-inning triumph against the Rebels in his first start in two weeks – an opposite-field home run and a single in the 13th inning for the game-winner.
When the dust settles, LSU might not dominate any All-SEC or All-American teams, but this collection of players seems to have the kind of chemistry needed for teams to succeed.
Tigers coach Paul Mainieri is fond of saying this team wins as much with a synergistic approach as any he has guided in 30 years.
Translation: LSU has a lot of good role players who have formed a group of players that legitimately like each other.
“We have a lot of really solid players and that’s how you win,” Nola said. “To have a good team, you can’t have 30-something superstars on a team. It just doesn’t work. Baseball is a game where you plug in guys who continue to work hard and take on different roles. We’ve got a bunch of guys who know their jobs and what they have to do for us to win.”
Added Dozar, the unofficial team leader in the dugout, “It really shows when we’re playing out there. We’re having fun and the guys in the dugout are pulling for each other.”
That camaraderie could begin to pay dividends this week – as early as Friday’s series opener.
With one victory against Vanderbilt and a Mississippi State loss at Florida, LSU will secure at least a tie for the West Division championship and the top seed from the division at the SEC Tournament. A second Tiger win this weekend and more than one Bulldog loss plus another loss by Arkansas and LSU is the outright West champ.
Each weekend after this one would also be a chance to win a crown of some sort, starting with an opportunity to win the overall SEC crown at South Carolina next week and culminating with the biggest prize of all in Omaha at the end of June.
“Before the season, the guys that have been here through the highs and lows, we talked about wanting to leave this place better than it was when we came in,” Dozar said. “The way we’ve gotten things back on the right track this season, that’s something that we’re proud of. We’ve had a great season and now we hold our own destiny in our hands.”
Added Hanover, “We just have to keep the team focused and headed in the right direction. We know we have a lot to play for. We’ve got to come out here ready to work whether we have five games left or 15 or whatever it turns out to be.”
ON DECK: Vanderbilt at LSU NOTES: Plenty at stake for the Tigers
NOTES: Plenty at stake for the Tigers