Nobody can say the first 53 games of the baseball season haven’t mattered or that the grind of 27 SEC games doesn’t mean anything.
But for LSU and South Carolina, not much matters but the next three games.
After three months of baseball, the Tigers and Gamecocks collide in three showdowns at Carolina Stadium that will play a major role in determining the SEC regular-season champion. Game 1 is slated for 6 p.m. Thursday.
“We’re excited to get there with what’s at stake and just get on the field and settle things,” LSU right fielder/first baseman Mason Katz said. “Both teams know what we have to do. It’s going to be a great fight between two good teams.”
There enough scenarios of what each team can or needs to do, in combination with how current SEC leader Kentucky fares at Mississippi State and what Florida does at Auburn.
But the simplest path for both the fourth-ranked Tigers (40-13, 17-10) and top-ranked Gamecocks (38-13, 17-9) doesn’t need much deciphering.
For either team, winning games is the surest path to the top of the SEC standings, and most likely a national seed when the NCAA Tournament is unveiled on May 28.
“We know our goals are ahead of us,” Katz said. “We just want to go out and win one game at a time and see if we can keep moving in the right direction.”
For LSU to take those steps, the immediate goal is to eradicate the bitter taste from last weekend when Vanderbilt came into Alex Box Stadium and stuck the Tigers with a pair of losses.
Sunday’s setback was particularly troublesome, as usually rock-solid closer Nick Goody surrendered a game-tying home run in the ninth inning and then gave up the winning run an inning later.
Hold onto that lead, and LSU is dead even for the SEC lead.
Instead, the Tigers have a steeper hill to climb against a Carolina team that is 16-4 in SEC games since a 1-5 beginning.
The Gamecocks have shown knack for winning in different ways, with nine of those 16 SEC wins when they’ve limited foes to three runs or fewer and eight when they have scored six runs or more.
This late-season resurgence isn’t by accident, of course. USC is the two-time reigning national champion and there was a core group back from last year’s College World Series triumph over Florida.
Headlining that crew of veterans is Game 1 starter Michael Roth, who is 5-0 with a 2.60 ERA. The lanky left-hander is limited opponents to a .194 batting average.
|Kevin Gausman: Looks to get the Tigers off on the right foot in a matchup with USC ace Michael Roth|
He matches up with Tigers’ ace Kevin Gausman, who has blossomed into one of the SEC’s top pitchers this season with an 8-1 mark and SEC-most 112 strikeouts in 91.2 innings, which tops the league.
“We know we’re going up against a really outstanding pitcher (Thursday) night, but our guy is pretty good, too,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Like the opening-game matchup, figuring out where the advantages lie for either team is a virtual tossup.
Both teams have had some offensive success, but have also encountered some valleys. Close games are not foreign to either club: South Carolina is 11-10 in one-run games and 3-4 in one-run league games. Fifteen of LSU’s SEC contests have been settled by a run and the Tigers are 11-4 in those battles.
“We’ve had a lot of success and we’ve won a lot of close games,” Mainieri said.
“We should be loose and should be confident.”
One player LSU needs to follow that mantra as much as anyone else is left fielder Raph Rhymes.
In the last four games, the nation’s top hitter is 3-for-15 and has tumbled to Earth a bit. He’s still batting .476 and leads the country with 88 hits and is among the league leaders with 48 RBIs.
For the Tigers to succeed against South Carolina’s deep and talented pitching staff, Rhymes and Katz both need to contribute at some point and in some way.
Katz comes into the weekend hitting .332 and is tied for the SEC lead with 55 runs. He also ranks among the SEC leaders with 15 doubles and he bashed his 10th home run Tuesday against Nicholls State.
As much as LSU needs contributions from up and down the lineup, nothing is more vital to winning in what figure to be closely contested, low-scoring games that Rhymes.
And he’s well aware of how critical he is to his team and is motivated to reverse the trend that began against Vandy.
|Rhymes: In need of a slump-busting performance after going 3-for-15 in the last four games.|
“Last weekend was tough,” Rhymes said. “It was just one of those weekends that, as a baseball player, you hate – not being able to help your team out. I’m not worried about my stats, but there were times last weekend when my team needed me and I didn’t come through.
“I’m gonna be surprised this weekend if I don’t find a way to make something happen. I’m gonna be determined to make something happen. I’m not going to put any added pressure on myself, but I am going to go up there and remember last weekend and be ready to compete.”
The Tigers will be without catcher Ty Ross, who is recuperating from an appendectomy. Ross did make the road trip, but he is expected to be out for at least another 8-12 days.
That means senior Jordy Snikeris will be back behind the plate and looking to improve from the final two games against Vanderbilt when the Commodores stole nine bases after LSU had surrendered only 15 steals in the first 25 SEC games.
With the SEC Tournament on the horizon with a Tuesday start because of the new 10-team format, this week has been a short one.
Mainieri would have it no other way.
“Who’d want to wait around and wait for this to happen?” he said.
“This is an experience these kids will enjoy.”
Here is the travel roster for the Tigers this weekend:
Position players – Ty Ross (inactive), 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, Jared Foster, Alex Edward