HOOVER, Ala. – Now that the postseason has arrived, the margin-of-error factor is magnified to a much different level.
Every mistake, every big play, every missed opportunity, every at-bat – sometimes every pitch – drips with meaning.
Starting next week, not managing that margin of error can lead to a season ending a lot sooner than expected.
For No. 2-ranked LSU, Wednesday’s game against rolling Mississippi State provided a slap-in-the-face reminder of just how much things are about to change.
The Tigers dropped a 3-2 decision to the 24th-ranked Bulldogs at Regions Park, dropping their first SEC Tournament game after claiming the regular-season SEC championship last weekend.
That isn’t the kind of punch in the gut it will be starting next week, and as much as any loss stings, this week is as much about figuring out just how key every play of every game can be for a team not heavy on postseason experience.
And losing Wednesday doesn’t bury the Tigers (42-15), either. The SEC’s new 10-team format makes it more manageable and realistic for LSU to climb back through for a chance at a fourth tournament crown in five years.
That task begins at 9:30 a.m. Thursday when the Tigers tangle with Ole Miss (35-23) in an elimination game. With a win in that contest, LSU would play at 3 p.m. Friday against either Mississippi State or Kentucky.
“The one thing about this new format, when we came here in ’09 and lost the opening game, we had to win five in a row,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “Now we only have to win four in a row, just a game a day. It’s not a hurdle that’s beyond our capabilities. I think we’ve got enough to able to do that if we play well to succeed. We can’t look past (Thursday). We face Ole Miss which is a very good team and we always have tough games with them.”
It’s hard to fathom the Rebels or any other opponent being able to send a tougher set of pitchers out to face the Tigers.
State junior Chris Stratton was again masterful, striking out eight in six innings and keeping LSU tied in knots. And relievers Caleb Reed and Johnathan Holder smothered the Tigers over the final three frames.
LSU scratched out five hits off Stratton, the Bulldogs’ ace, but four came with two outs and none to open an inning.
“He doesn’t get into in patterns,” said Tigers’ first baseman Mason Katz, who struck out on three pitches in his first two trips to the plate. “My first couple of at-bats he was fastball-slider and then he came to me with fastball-curveball. It looks the same coming out of his hand, but one breaks a little bit more. He works both sides of the plate, and he has good off-speed stuff. He’s got a very bright future, and that’s why he’s so good.”
Added Raph Rhymes, who produced LSU’s first two hits “I think it’s his ability to control both pitches. He’s going to throw the fastball and the slider for a strike, and it’s a good one. You can’t go up there thinking one pitch. He’s going to keep you off-balance. He’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to be around the zone, and it’s pretty difficult.”
|Aaron Nola: Two solid innings in his SEC Tournament debut|
It also helped Stratton that the Bulldogs (36-21) eased in front 2-0 in the third inning after LSU left-hander Brent Bonvillain took over on the mound after Aaron Nola’s predetermined short stint ended with him retiring all six hitters he faced.
Leadoff man Adam Frazier kept the rally alive when he punched a third soft liner over the left side of the infield. With the 6-foot-5, 296-pound Rea lumbering around third base, Rhymes tried to scoop up the ball quickly for a throw home. But he bobbled the ball and Rea scored easily for a 1-0 lead.
“I was just trying to get rid of it,” Rhymes said. “I knew there might be a shot at home. I was trying to get it in my glove and get it out of there. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with the ball. I bobbled it. It was a big play in the game. You never know what could happen if I field that ball cleanly.”
Brent Brownlee stretched the lead when he smoked a ground ball through the middle to plate Norris. Bonvillain retired Trey Porter on a deep fly ball to center and then gave way to Kevin Berry, who walked the first hitter he faced to load the bases and then struck out Mitch Slauter to finish the inning.
With Stratton in a groove, that 2-0 cushion loomed large, but the Tigers came back and found some success after an earlier squandered chance.
JaCoby Jones walked to start the LSU third inning, but was still standing there with two outs. Rhymes rifled a single to center field and Jones never slowed down rounding second base – despite third-base coach Javi Sanchez’s stop sign – and was gunned down at third by center fielder Hunter Renfroe.
“I don’t think it was a particularly right move for JaCoby to try to go to third base with two outs,” Mainieri said. “I wanted him to try to steal. I had him on his own for seven pitches and he never attempted to steal second base there. And then we get the base hit, baseball rules tell you don’t ever get thrown at third base with two outs. Javi is trying to hold him up and he ran through his top sign and he gets thrown out at third base. Part of it was they made an outstanding play, part of it was not a smart move on our part.”
In the fifth inning, Stratton’s second and last walk helped set up the inning.
Tyler Hanover watched four pitches go by out of the strike zone with one out, and although he was erased on Jones’ fielder’s choice, that free pass extended the inning long enough to give the top of the Tigers’ batting order a chance to come up.
Austin Nola whacked a single to left field and Jones made a better read and hustled around to third base. With Katz at the dish, Nola swiped second base and that was big when Katz fought back from an 0-and-2 count, worked it to full and then slapped a single through the left side to score both runners and knot the score 2-2.
“We’ve done that all year,” Katz said. “If we haven’t gotten on top early, someone will come through at some point.”
Same has been true for State lately, though, and it didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to respond.
With reliever Joe Broussard in his third inning, Slauter lined a one-out double to right center field that LSU center fielder Arby Fields nearly tracked down. Broussard got ahead of Demarcus Henderson 0-and-2 but then left a pitch a little too fat and the Bulldogs’ left field rammed the offering into center field to score Slauter and put MSU right back in front 3-2.
State hitters were 1-for-11 the rest of the game, but that one enticing 0-and-2 pitch was just enough.
“There was a ball hit to right-center by Slauter that we just couldn’t quite get to, and the Henderson kid with a 2-strike count, instead of throwing the ball in the dirt, we left it up a little bit and to his credit he got a base hit on it,” Mainieri said.
Getting hits was something most of LSU’s lineup couldn’t muster against Stratton, Reed and Holder.
Nola, Katz and Rhymes – the top third of a revamped batting order by Mainieri designed to give the Tigers a chance to bunch runs off Stratton – were a combined 4-for-11.
The last six hitters and pinch-hitter Ty Ross went 1-for-19 with nine strikeouts.
Reed mowed down all six hitters he faced, including Nola, Katz and Rhymes on weak-contact ground balls in the eighth, and Holder extended his season-long scoreless streak to 25.1innings with a 1-2-3 ninth – the last two outs on called third strikes that buckled the knees of Grant Dozar and Ross.
The only real threat LSU posed in the last four innings was a screamer that Jones sent toward the left-field line that Henderson dove for and snared for the third out of the seventh inning.
“If that ball gets past him, with JaCoby’s speed it might be an inside-the-park home run,” Mainieri said.
It didn’t, and the Tigers never got much of a chance to even the score again.
“We’ve lost the first game before, so we’re going to battle back and wipe this one off and come back (Thursday),” Katz said.
“It doesn’t change anything. We got out and focus on one game at a time anyway. If we have to play one game more, so be it. Hopefully that just means we have to stay here a little bit longer, play a little bit more baseball. It doesn’t really change anything mentality-wise. We go out and try to win every game no matter what, so it’s just like every weekend series. … Just because we lost this one doesn’t mean anything about the outcome of this tournament.”