Weekend Preview: Florida

No. 3 LSU looks to snap out of its offensive funk this weekend against Florida. The Tigers travel to Gainesville with hopes of righting the ship against a Gator team that isn't quite on par with the dominant squads of years past.

Everybody wants an answer to a question that has none.

How do you fix the struggling LSU offense? It's true the Tigers are slumping, but there's no simple solution in a sport where even the best fail 70 percent of the time.

The Tigers are hitting just 12-for-74 in their last two games, a .162 batting average. LSU only lost one of those games though — Sunday's finale against Georgia resulted in a tie — but that hasn't stopped the Tiger faithful from pressing the panic button.

Paul Mainieri and his players aren't though. They feel bad luck has played a large part in the recent woes at the plate. But they're not skirting responsibility. They're just more optimistic that better times are ahead.

"I could stand up here and give you a lot of excuses," Mainieri said. "But nobody wants to hear excuses…We just need to be better."

No. 3 LSU's first test comes this weekend as the Tigers (20-5-1, 3-2-1 SEC) travel to Gainesville for a three-game set against Florida (16-9, 3-3). Mainieri does have some ideas as to how to get his team back on track, and we'll get into that later. But first, here are the weekend's pitching matchups, game times and TV listings:

PITCHING MATCHUPS


Game 1 – 6:30 p.m. (Cox Sports Television)
LSU – Jr. RHP Aaron Nola (5-0, 0.22 ERA, 40.1 IP, 8 BB, 56 SO)
UF – So. RHP Eric Hanhold (3-2, 3.18 ERA, 22.2 IP, 8 BB, 17 SO)

Game 2 – Noon (CBS Sports Network)
LSU – Fr. LHP Jared Poche' (5-1, 1.91 ERA, 33.0 IP, 9 BB, 24 SO)
UF – Fr. RHP Logan Shore (1-1, 1.15 ERA, 31.1 IP, 6 BB, 23 SO)

Game 3 – Noon (No TV)
LSU – TBA
UF – TBA


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Mainieri admits he's inadvertently taken the aggressiveness out of LSU's lineup. That stems from the Vanderbilt series when the Tigers felt a heavy does of small ball was needed to counteract the Commodores' excellent pitching. That's spilled over though into LSU's recent games as the players say they're taking too many pitches and not attacking the opposing pitchers.

But plenty of aggression seems to be on the menu for this weekend, as the Tigers hope to get that much-needed offensive spark.

"I like to show confidence in players," Mainieri said. "I don't want them to play afraid. I don't want them be afraid to lose. I want them to play to win and put the attack on the other team. We're going to do that."

One player that's felt the brunt of this slump is Alex Bregman. Mired in the worst streak of his career — 4-for-29 since the start of SEC play — Mainieri barred Bregman from conducting media interviews with hopes that would get him to relax more.

Bregman hasn't had a multi-hit game since March 9 against Purdue, and as the team's unquestioned leader, he's accepting a lot of responsibility for the offense's struggles. Mainieri thinks he's taking on too much.

"The kid right now is feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders," Mainieri said. "I had several meetings with him trying to get him back into the right mental approach. He doesn't have the answers right now, and he's trying to figure it out himself."

Mainieri has made adjustments to the batting order during Bregman's slump though. He's now hitting second with Sean McMullen in the three-hole and Mark Laird batting leadoff. Mainieri hadn't made a final decision as to whether that will continue into this weekend's series, but considering McMullen has one of the few hot bats on the team, it may be what LSU needs.

"Great competition brings out a great competitive edge out of us," McMullen said. "I'm definitely looking forward to this weekend and seeing what we can do."


Sean McMullen could provide a much-needed spark from the three-hole
The Tigers certainly aren't taking Florida lightly though they're not quite on par with the powerhouse teams of years past. The Gators lost two out of three to Texas A&M last weekend before kicking off a brutal chunk of schedule.

That started with a neutral-site game Tuesday against No. 2 Florida State, a game the Gators pulled out 4-0. After hosting LSU this weekend, the Gators travel to No. 21 Kentucky and No. 4 South Carolina in consecutive weekends with a trip to Tallahassee sandwiched in between.

The Gators will certainly be looking to build off that win against the Seminoles, but the LSU players are confident facing Florida is jus what the doctor ordered.

"We're going to have a big game coming soon," said Andrew Stevenson, whose .356 batting average is second on the team. "We're due for a breakout game, and hopefully we can get one against Florida."

Surprisingly it's been the Gator pitchers that have contributed to their early struggles. Florida's still working out the kinks in its weekend rotation, and the Gators still haven't had that one dominant pitching performance in SEC play thus far. Even Karsten Whitson, who'd been one of Florida's better pitchers the last two years, was removed from the weekend rotation because of inconsistency.

They've started two different pitchers in Sunday games this SEC season, and that spot remains TBD for this weekend's series.

As it does for LSU. Kyle Bouman hasn't pitched since the Vanderbilt series after spraining his ankle two weeks ago. He did toss a bullpen session shortly before the Tigers left for Gainesville, and didn't experience any pain during the workout. He's still questionable for this weekend, and the coaches will test his mobility to see if he's ready to go.

The Tigers will also have Alden Cartwright back in the mix as he's fully recovered from a shoulder strain. He should step back into a bullpen that's been the most dominant phase of LSU's team, and having a solid pitching staff has taken some of the pressure off the Tiger offense.

But those hitters will still be looking to right the ship this weekend.

"Everyone knows we're real close," Stevenson said. "We're a couple hits away. We just need to get something going, break it open and get out of this funk we're in."

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