Four games to go, and LSU can afford to coast
LSU entered the weekend with one primary goal in mind — win the West. Though LSU dropped the opener against Texas A&M, Arkansas' opening loss to Tennessee reopened the door for the Tigers to clinch it on Saturday. LSU needed to win both games that day, and that's what they did. Though Vanderbilt's sweep of Kentucky secured them the overall conference title, that combined with LSU's clinching of the No. 2 seed serves as a blessing.
LSU can essentially coast into the SEC Tournament. Not that Paul Mainieri would allow for his team to ease off the gas pedal, but this upcoming series will allow the Tigers to get their minds right. Aaron Nola will get some rest, as will most of the starters at some point. Mainieri said every player on the roster will get some playing time in the next four games, and that will only help LSU's depth heading into the tournament.
Andrew Stevenson growing into a complete player
Heading into this weekend, Stevenson was given new responsibility as an everyday CF. Though his offense had been slow to come around for the majority of his freshman season, there was no question his speed and defense would be a welcome addition to the field and lineup. But this weekend he proved he can be more than just a glove and a pair of cleats.
After a 0-for-3 night to open the series, Stevenson reached base in five of his seven at-bats in Games 2 and 3. One of the two times he didn't was a RBI SAC bunt on Friday. His three hits this weekend matched his total for the entire month of April. So while the defense and speed are still there, the bat appears to be coming around. Especially with his proven ability to bunt, he seems to be growing into a definite weapon for LSU at the bottom of the order.
Two reliable relievers
There weren't two arms more dependable than Chris Cotton and Nick Rumbelow this past weekend. The duo combined to throw 4 2/3 innings in the three-game series, with only one hit allowed between them. Rumbelow helped keep LSU in the opener even though the offense didn't come around to give the Tigers a win. Mainieri called on Rumbelow again in Game 2 after Joey Bourgeois was mostly ineffective in the resumption Saturday morning. With the Aggies threatening to draw closer with LSU in the eighth inning, Rumbelow shut the door, inducing a double play to end the threat.
Cotton was equally dominant, earning the save and Game 2 then getting a win that same day in Game 3. In his first outing, he needed just seven pitches in a perfect ninth, preserving himself for his encore performance later that afternoon. Like Rumbelow did in Game 2, Cotton relieved Eades and forced a threat-ending double play to escape in the eighth. Cotton has been the most reliable arm in LSU's bullpen, and though Rumbelow had a shaky start to the season, he too is proving he can be counted on in the clutch.
Shooting themselves in the feet
Few teams can prevent LSU from winning ballgames, but there have been times this year where the Tigers did enough damage to themselves. Think back to the series finale with Alabama. Three of Alabama's four runs in that game were unearned thanks to three unusual Tiger errors. In the opener with Texas A&M, it was the typically dominant defense that again let down the Tigers. First, Alex Bregman's error allowed the Aggies to put two on with nobody out, then Christian Ibarra's errant throw on a bunt allowed the game-tying run to score.
The defense nearly let LSU down again on Saturday. The game-tying run scored after Bregman was unable to barehand a dribbler, allowing the runner to second. He scored two batters later. Though LSU's defense has been one of its strongest parts this season, when it fails, it's been one of the few things unable to keep LSU from victory.
Problems on the base paths
As I referenced in the previous section, LSU can be its own worst enemy at times. That was clearly evident as the Tigers created their own outs in the base paths. The biggest culprit was Andrew Stevenson, who was caught napping on second and picked off with the bases loaded. Mainieri was clearly frustrated as the cameras caught him toss a few R-rated words at the freshman.
On Saturday alone, Sean McMullen was thrown out trying to score from second, and in the next inning, Raph Rhymes was thrown out trying to take second on a wild pitch. Then in the finale, it was Stevenson again who was caught stealing as LSU tried to smallball a run. While you can chalk these mostly up to aggression, LSU's speed should be something that helps the Tigers on the basepaths, not hurts them.
Watch out for the Commodores
This last point isn't so much a negative on the Tigers, but an overwhelmingly positive for the team posing the stiffest challenge to LSU in the SEC. Vanderbilt has proved week-in and week-out they're one of the most complete teams in the country, earning a unanimous No. 1 seed in all major polls this week. The Commodores clinched the SEC regular season title this weekend with a sweep of Kentucky, and in doing so the top seed in the SEC Tournament.
The stats only further make Vanderbilt's case. The Dores have eight everyday players batting .300 or higher and two aces in their rotation — Tyler Beede (1.73 ERA) and Kevin Ziomek (2.00 ERA). Should LSU and Vanderbilt meet in the SEC Championship game — which most of us hope is the case — it will provide the Tigers' stiffest challenge to date, and one that will have fans anxious in anticipation.
Where can LSU improve before the postseason
Three Up, Three Down
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