A year ago, LSU blew a seven run lead after six innings and tied Georgia 10-10 in a game that was called after 12 innings. Blowing a lead like that would leave most coaches searching for answers, but little did Paul Mainieri know that it would springboard his squad into a 23-game winning streak which is the longest in SEC history for a single season.
Just like April 20, 2008, Mainieri is searching for answers one year later as his Tigers fell apart against Tennessee after demolishing the Volunteers on Friday night.
LSU crushed the orange clad Vols, 18-3, in game one, only to give game two away with a season-high five errors. That forced the third and deciding match that was never in doubt as Tennessee jumped out to a 9-0 lead after four frames and eventually won 9-4.
LSU (28-12, 11-7) doesn’t need to reel off 23 in a row to put itself into the post-season picture like it did a year ago, but the Tigers highest ranking is now at No. 6 and their RPI tumbled to No. 22 in Boyd’s World. The NCAA will release its RPI on Tuesday and after dropping three of their last four contests – all at home to two teams with a combined record of 36-42 – the Tigers are sure to tumble much lower than No. 12 which is where they sat a week ago.
The ranking and RPI is important when it comes to hosting a Super Regional because let’s face it LSU could be ranked near the bottom of the Top 25 and still get a Regional host at the New Alex Box based on the fans and revenue the stadium will draw.
But after starting the season with such lofty expectations many are waiting for this club to catch fire much like it did last season.
The signs are there to some degree such as with Blake Dean, who hit .424 over the 23-game streak with 11 homers and 34 RBI.
After starting the season slowly, the junior from Crestview, Fla. has been seeing the ball better and over the last nine games he’s hitting .474 (18-38) with three doubles, four home runs and 18 runs batted in.
The Tigers are currently batting .311 as a team compared to the .293 clip they were on this date last year, but getting the timely hits has been a problem in 2009.
The more glaring issue, however, is on the mound and it goes much deeper than the 4.32 team ERA that LSU has which is only slightly higher than the 4.02 that the squad sported last April.
LSU had a strong bullpen last season down the stretch with Jared Bradford, Louis Coleman and Paul Bertuccini all providing steady and dependable relief for the starters. Unfortunately, though, the same cannot be said for this season.
Bradford got roughed up in the college world series and benefitted immensely from LSU’s production at the plate, but he was 4-0 with four saves in his last 11 appearances leading up to Omaha. His earned run average was a little high at 4.36 in those 11 outings, but he was someone that Mainieri trusted as a starter, a setup man or as a closer.
Coleman was the dominant pitcher as he was 8-1 with a save from April 15 to the end of the season. His only loss on the year was in the season finale to North Carolina and his 1.95 ERA ranked among the nation’s best in 23 appearances.
Add in Bertuccini’s 2-0 record with a pair of saves and 2.63 earned run average from last season and LSU had a stable of arms to work with.
After losing his top four starters from 2008, Mainieri knew that there were some question marks on the hill heading into this campaign, but Coleman and Anthony Ranaudo have proved they are two of the best in the SEC.
Coleman leads the league in victories (8) and ERA (2.54), and is third holding opponents to a .214 batting average and second behind Ranaudo in strikeouts (80).
Ranaudo has notched only half of the wins – four – that Coleman has, but the Tigers left the bats on the bus a few times on Friday nights and didn’t give him much help. His ERA (2.83) is good for second in the conference and he’s holding the opposition to a league-low .205 batting average, not to mention his league-leading 80 strikeouts.
While Coleman has performed exceptionally, his role as a starter has put Mainieri in a bind because he doesn’t have that dominant hurler he can turn to for middle and late relief.
True freshman closer Matty Ott has exceeded expectations with a 2-1 record, seven saves and 2.83 ERA in his team-leading 20 appearances, but this is the time of year where a young arm can get stiff and opponents have more scouting reports to go off of.
Bertuccini was someone that Mainieri was counting on, but the junior right-hander has been disappointing with a 6.35 ERA in only 11.1 innings and 15 appearances. Another arm that the skipper was looking to was Ryan Byrd, but he hasn’t come through and has given up 12 earned runs in 16 innings.
Cain has pitched 8.1 scoreless innings with a win in his last five appearances, and he’s lowered his ERA from 10.00 to 5.19 with those outings.
Bradshaw got knocked around in Sunday’s loss to Tennessee, allowing three runs on four hits in 1.2 innings. But in his previous six appearances the sophomore right-hander allowed only one earned run in 9.2 innings which included a season-high five frames of shutout ball where he allowed only two hits in picking up the win against UNO last Tuesday.
Whether it’s Bradshaw, Cain, Bertuccini or Ben Alsup, LSU is going to have to get more consistent production out of the bullpen, and it’s going to take more than arm.
The starters can only go for so long and as the season wears on some other pitchers are going to have to be available and will have to deliver.
The fact that LSU lost the series to Tennessee – the team with the worst record in the SEC – isn’t the end of the world by any means. The fact remains that LSU won the previous five conference series this season, and is only a half game out of first place in the West and two behind Georgia for the overall league lead.
With four SEC weekends remaining against Auburn and Florida at home, and road trips to Arkansas and Mississippi State, it’s time for the Tigers to start playing like one of the top teams in the country it was billed to be in the preseason.
It won’t take a record-breaking win streak for them to have the chance to play into June, but if they want to play in Baton Rouge they’ll need to show the NCAA Selection Committee more than they showed last week.