The Tigers' starting backstop missed the final two games of the Vanderbilt series after an emergency appendectomy Saturday afternoon and will be out all this week and likely most of next.
That thrusts senior Jordy Snikeris into the starting role and the initial results weren't spectacular as the Commodores stole nine bases in two wins, changing the game every time they got a runner at first base.
Bottom line: As gritty a player as Snikeris has been and despite his strengths as a receiver and in handling pitchers, his arm is nowhere close to Ross.
"Jordy's got his limitations, but he's going to try as hard as he can every day," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "I love the kid. I think he's a great competitor, but he doesn't obviously throw as well as Ty Ross, and we'll have to figure out a way to hold it down."
Which demands a burning question: How can Snikeris improve and at least neutralize opponents' running game?
Obviously his arm isn't going to gain any velocity or strength in a few days time. But the Austin native said it will help him to work more with Javi Sanchez and the LSU pitching staff to come up with a more complex game plan to hold runners.
"I need to take more reps," Snikeris said. "There's a lot of factors into throwing out runners. For me, it's more of a timing thing. As a pitch is coming when do to get deep, how to make your exchange and what's your footwork. I haven't been back there a lot this season, so it's something I've just got to get used to."
|Jordy Snikeris: He has batted .333 (17 for 51) in 13 starts since April 3.|
Mainieri said Snikeris has gotten regular practice time with Sanchez and the pitchers throughout the season. There's a difference between working as the backup behind an All-SEC caliber catcher in Ross and knowing you're in the lineup, though.
The LSU coach joked that the game plan could be tweaked to have pitchers throw to first base a thousand times if needed. Getting the staff to pay closer attention to runners – particularly the right-handed relievers – is a must.
Facing South Carolina might also create a built-in break. The Gamecocks are last in the SEC in stolen bases (28) and attempts (47).
All that said, tightening up mechanics and having pitchers hold runners better is all great. But Snikeris also has to ratchet his game up a notch, and he's fully aware of that.
"When you lose a leader like Ty, who plays such a key role and is so good at what he does, that's tough," Snikeris said. "But I can do a better job and I have to be ready to step up as much as I can."
Added Mainieri, "Sooner or later, somebody's got to throw the ball to second base quickly enough and accurately."
The other tricky element to Snikeris jumping in as the starting catcher is how it will affect him offensively.
Since early April, he has emerged as a reliable threat in the batting order with a .333 average (17 for 51) in 13 starts. He handles the bat well for hit-and-run and sacrifice situations and has provided protection behind Raph Rhymes.
For a team that managed only 21 hits and 9 runs in the series against Vanderbilt, losing offensive production from anywhere is a tad scary. Not to mention that LSU will be without Ross' .305 average and 35 RBIs.
"Being the catcher, I feel like my No. 1 priority is defense and making sure I'm managing the game back there as well as I can," said Snikeris, a .311 hitter for the season. "But I have to be able to go up to the plate and focus on anything I can do to help us there too."
While Ross recuperates, freshman Tyler Moore will be the No. 2 catcher, a role he is likely to step into next season when Snikeris is gone. The versatile Moore (he is also likely to get a shot at third base next season) has settled in as LSU's starting first baseman this season.
If not for Vanderbilt rallying for the tying and winning runs off LSU closer Nick Goody on Sunday, Alex Edward was poised to step into the hero spotlight for the Tigers for the first time this season.
|Alex Edward: Could be the Tigers' right-handed DH until Ross is back in action.|
The little-used junior keyed LSU's eighth-inning run when he stepped in and slapped a pinch-hit single through the middle, his second hit of the series and first successful at-bat as a pinch-hitter this season.
Sparked by Edward getting on as just the second leadoff batter to start an inning, the Tigers scratched out an unearned run to take a 4-3 lead into the 9th inning.
"It gives me a little more confidence," said Edward, who has grappled with hamstring injuries all season and has been to the plate only 41 times all season. "Every time I get a pinch hit, I get a little more comfortable in that situation which is big for us because down the road there's going to be more opportunities like that. It's a vital role for our team."
Edward's role could be accentuated with Ross out.
Snikeris had been serving as the right-handed designated hitter against left-handed starting pitchers, so there is an open role available. Edward, Jackson Slaid, Jared Foster and Evan Powell are the prime candidates and it was Edward who got the nod Saturday when he went 1-for-2.
"I'm ready to fill whatever role this team needs me to," Edward said. "That's what you have to do when you play at LSU."
New man at the top?
|Austin Nola: Stepped in as the leadoff hitter and responded with 2 hits, 2 RBIs and a run scored|
Austin Nola got his first run as LSU's leadoff hitter in Sunday's loss and it's hard to argue with the results.
The senior shortstop was 2-for-2, drew two walks, drove in a pair of runs and scored another.
"I was seeing the ball well (Sunday)," Nola said. "I felt comfortable up there. I was trying to have good at-bats for my teammates."
Whether he stays there is up in the air, but the new look – with Arby Fields hitting second – makes a lot of sense.
Nola leads the Tigers with 33 walks, knows how to work pitchers and is a tough out no matter what the situation. Hitting in front of Fields could lead to a pitcher having to work hard and then easing up when Fields steps in, a recipe for get-it-over fastballs early in the count.
The immediate impact was a positive influence on Fields, who walked three times Sunday, one fewer than he had all season before the game. Fields had taken over the leadoff role, but his average has dipped to .240 and his .304 on-base average is the lowest among the starters. Nola's OBA is .415, third on the team behind Rhymes and Mason Katz.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin missed Sunday's game after flying back to Nashville to be with his ailing daughter, Molly.
Mainieri said he texted Corbin as soon as he found out about the situation Sunday.
"As important as baseball is to all of us, we're fathers and husbands first and that comes before anything else," Mainieri said. "I'm glad he was able to get home to be with his daughter.