With a team as dependent on every player for a specific role as LSU has been this season, removing one key cog can be problematic. When that missing player and his role also happen to play right into the hands of an overmatched opponent, the equation doesn’t turn out well at all.
|Ty Ross: Out 10 days to 3 weeks after surgery to remove his appendix|
Playing without catcher Ty Ross, the third-ranked Tigers looked out of sync from the start in a 6-3 loss Saturday night when they tangled with Vanderbilt in the middle game of a weekend SEC series at Alex Box Stadium.
LSU (39-12, 17-9 SEC) was stagnant on offense most of the night, typified by Raph Rhymes’ 0-for-4 night which snapped a 16-game hitting streak.
The Tigers’ pitchers struggled to subdue the light-hitting Commodores (25-25, 12-14), who went in order only once, and that was in the ninth inning.
And the LSU defense broke down at key times, with Austin Nola’s uncharacteristic error opening the gate for a two-run inning that deflated the Tigers.
The major problem, though, was the absence of Ross – arguably LSU’s most improved player this season. The sophomore had to undergo an emergency appendectomy Saturday evening and is out 10 days to 3 weeks.
The Commodores relied on stolen bases, mixed in Nola’s error and a misplay on a bunt and evened the series to force a decisive game Sunday when the teams wrap things up at 1 p.m.
How big was Ross’ absence?
With senior Jordy Snikeris filling in, Vanderbilt swiped five bases, there were two LSU wild pitches and there seemed to be some synchronicity problems – especially with the two relievers who came in after the Commodores scratched out a pair of runs against starter Aaron Nola in the sixth inning to pad their lead to 3-0.
Snikeris has been a pleasant surprise this season with his bat, and he had two more hits Saturday and drove in the Tigers’ first run with a slow roller infield single in the bottom of the sixth,
But the difference in physical skills behind the plate were glaring, especially under the abrupt circumstances.
“There’s a reason why Ty Ross is the No. 1 catcher,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said after his team dropped to 39-12 overall, 17-9 in the SEC. The Tigers are in a second-place tie with South Carolina, half a game behind Kentucky.
“Ty has thrown a lot of runners out stealing and he’s just been very solid for us defensively. When you lose a guy at such a critical position, you just have to overcome it. Jordy doesn’t have the same skill set as Ty, but Jordy will battle and do the best he can.”
It didn’t take long for Vandy to seize on the difference in LSU’s defense.
After Aaron Nola worked around trouble in the first two frames, Commodores’ leadoff man Tony Kemp kick-started the offense when he smacked a single to center field with one out and quickly swiped second base.
Nola got the second out when he retired Mike Yastrzemski, but fell behind Anthony Gomez 3-and-1 before the Vandy 3-hole hitter rammed one of his four hits to center field to score Kemp for a 1-0 lead.
Things got worse in the fifth inning when Spencer Navin got hit by a pitch to start the inning and broke on the first pitch, with Snikeris’ throw caroming off the rosin bag on the mound. Connor Castellano tapped a slow roller through the middle that Austin Nola scooped up and threw wildly past first to score Navin.
With the Tigers clearly out of sorts, nine-hole hitter Jack Lupo laid down a perfect bunt that Aaron Nola fielded but had nowhere to throw because nobody covered first base.
The bunting and stealing and scratching out runs are how and why Vanderbilt has been able to get better down the stretch. Ross’ absence was magnified because it played into the Commodores’ hands and they executed well.
“When we fall behind and the other team has the chance to run that do different things, that just makes it harder to defend,” Mainieri said. “They were doing a lot of things right and we weren’t.”
Brent Bonvillain relieved Nola and got two quick outs to stop the bleeding and LSU scratched out a run in the bottom of the sixth.
That run also represented the kind of frustrating night it was for the Tigers, though.
Austin Nola and Mason Katz drew back-to-back walks to start the frame, finally chasing Vandy starter Sam Selman. That brought Rhymes to the plate with a chance to turn the game around vs. Commodores reliever Drew VerHagen.
Instead, Rhymes rolled an 0-and-1 pitch right at the shortstop for a 6-4-3 double play – one of four Vandy turned in the game, two off Rhymes and another against speedy Arby Fields to extinguish a threat in the seventh.
Rhymes’ 0-for-4 night also included a rare strikeout and dropped his national-best batting average to .486.
“Nobody can put all blame on Raph at all,” said Katz, who was 2-for-4, but flew out to left field to end the game. “He’s carried us on his back all season long. There’s nine hitters for a reason, and when Raph doesn’t come through, somebody else has to and we didn’t.”
Snikeris allowed the Tigers to salvage a run in the sixth inning when he hustled out a slow ground ball for an infield single that plated Nola.
In the eighth inning, Austin Nola walked to start an uprising and Katz singled. After reliever Brian Miller fanned Rhymes, Snikeris pumped a single to right field to load the bases.
|Tyler Moore: 2-run single in the 8th inning gives Tigers late hope|
That brief flurry of hope fizzled when Tyler Hanover grounded out to second base, and Clinard weathered the ninth inning and Arby Fields’ bunt single to slam the door – getting Katz for the last out with Rhymes waiting on deck for a shot at redemption.
It wasn’t that last missed chance weighing on Katz’s mind nearly as much as the squandered opportunities earlier in the game.
Until Snikeris’ single in the sixth, LSU was 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and stranded three runners at second or third base. The Tigers wound up 4-for-15 in situations to score and five of their eight left on base were in scoring position.
“When they start getting a lead, it starts to wear on you and you’re thinking about the opportunities you’ve let get away,” Katz said. “We’ve been pretty good in clutch situations this season, but we weren’t (Saturday). It was just one of those nights. Every team has one and it was out turn (Saturday).”
Like Katz, Mainieri was quick to defend Rhymes.
“He just didn’t have a good night,” Mainieri said.
“When he doesn’t hit for you, it just kind of knocks you back a little bit.”
And leaves you in a position to bounce back.
LSU will play its fourth decisive game in nine SEC series Sunday and the Tigers will take the field with a fuller understanding that Ross won’t be around for a while.
Sophomore Ryan Eades gets the ball looking to reverse a recent trend of four rocky starts in his last five.
“We have to come out (Sunday) with a fresh attitude and a belief in ourselves and do our best to win the series,” Mainieri said. “I’d be surprised if we don’t come out and play our best game of the weekend.”