Hitting their stride

It comes down to this. With a pair of SEC series to play, the LSU baseball team is all knotted up with Florida and Ole Miss for first place in the league race. As the baseball gods would have it, the Gators travel to Baton Rouge this weekend in a showdown at the top of the podium just prior to the conference tournament in Hoover, Ala.

Just over two months ago, the Tiger baseball team entered a 2009 season that carried a bit of pressure.

Playing under the brightest of lights in a top of the line, 9,200-seat park, the unit was tabbed as the nation’s top-ranked team.

Needless to say, expectations of a return trip to Omaha were abound.

Opening up the month of May, not much has changed – though the road to get here would not suggest that to be the case.

At 36-13 (16-8 SEC), head coach Paul Mainieri’s crew remains one of the NCAA’s premier ball clubs.

Winners of 11 of their last 12 conference series dating back to April 2008, LSU is fresh off perhaps its’ biggest weekend to date – taking two of three games from seventh-ranked Arkansas to jump into the lead in the SEC West.

Of course, where would the Tigers be over that stretch if it were not for the veteran, right arm of Louis Coleman?

Take, for instance, this past Saturday.

The senior stepped onto the hill in game two, which was delayed from a 12 p.m. first pitch to 8:30 p.m., and tossed one of his most impressive games on the year.

After he surrendered a single to start the second inning, Coleman retired 19 straight Razorback batters.

Striking out six and allowing just a pair of hits, he battled through the wind and rain to move his record to 9-2.

Even more peculiar, seven of the senior’s nine wins have come in the wake of a Tiger loss.

“He is our stopper,” Mainieri said. “He stops losing streaks, bottom line. He did it for us again this past weekend at Arkansas, so you see that Louis is a big reason that this team has only lost two games in a row once this entire year.”

At the plate, however, Tiger fans are experiencing a bit of déjà vu.

There may no longer be Matt Clark dropping home runs over the right field fence, yet his counterpart remains.

Blake Dean, who batted .328 during SEC play and .407 in postseason play in 2008, is heating up once more.

The junior hit .500 (7-for-14) this past week, recording two doubles, three home runs, seven RBI and five runs to lead the Tigers in three of their four wins.

The high point of his week came last Wednesday against Tulane.

Teaming up with Ryan Schimpf, the pair launched back-to-back home runs twice in the same inning.

Batting just .255 on March 21, Dean has upped his average to .333 in just over a month’s time.

“No matter the drought that a hitter gets in, the best hitter always pulls through,” Mainieri said. “Blake Dean is one of the best hitters in the game, so I knew that the turnaround would come.”

Déjà vu, of course, for this was the exact time that the junior sparked his memorable 2008 run.

“I don’t know what it is about me and hitting late in the season, but things just seem to fall into place for me,” Dean said. “I just have to stick in there and battle it out, and eventually the dust settled and I started hitting well again.

“I was slumping for a while, but the past month I feel like I am back in stride,” he added. “I think that if I can keep my focus and keep the bat hot then things could end up a lot like they did last spring for me at the plate.”

Yet, there is something unique about the 2009 team that has them creating their own identity.

Perhaps it is the freshman shuffle, seeing the LSU skipper toss a number of inexperienced Tigers into the lineup throughout the season.

While Tyler Hanover took over at the hot corner ten games in, starting shortstop Austin Nola played just his tenth game last Friday.

All is well, however, for the shoe seems to fit.

Hanover is batting .322 with 40 RBI, while Nola has driven in ten runs on eleven hits.

Equally important has been their play in the field, seeing Nola hook up with second baseman DJ LeMahieu to form one of the league’s most efficient defensive infields.

The move to get Nola onto the field saw fellow freshman Mikie Mahtook find a new home in centerfield, where he is batting .340 with four home runs in 25 starts.

Add to the mix a freshman arm, and the recipe never tasted so good.

Matty Ott, the team’s go-to-man come the eighth and ninth, owns a 2.11 ERA and a team-high 11 saves.

To understand how much Mainieri embraced the arrival of Ott, think back to the opening series of the season.

Coleman earned the Friday night start, but the schedule saw him to return to the bullpen as the team’s closer headed forward.

Two months and 36 wins later, it was Coleman who worked the long hours on Saturday or Sunday, seeing Ott fill the void left at the closer spot.

With a big weekend on tap, however, Mainieri has his eyes on the road ahead.

“I can’t tell you how many times this season we have gone into a weekend saying that this is the biggest series so far,” he said. “We went to Arkansas and said that, and now Florida has put themselves in a position to win the SEC and we are saying it again.

“These kids are used to playing in the big games, though,” he added. “From the young guys to the veterans, I know we will be ready.”

Ready they will need to be, of course, as the plate will be served hot.

The Gators (34-14, 16-8 SEC) are coming in rolling fast, sweeping South Carolina (30-18, 12-12 SEC) to end the month of April before sweeping Georgia (33-15, 14-10 SEC) in Athens last weekend.

Ole Miss (36-13, 16-8 SEC), who is tied with the Tigers atop the West, welcomes in-state rival Mississippi State to town this weekend.

The Bulldogs (21-26, 6-17 SEC), the conference’s worst team, wrap their season up back in Starkville the following weekend with a date with LSU.

The Rebels travel to Arkansas (31-14, 14-9 SEC) on May 14 to finish their regular season campaign, leaving the race in the West wild to say the least.

The Tigers will look this weekend to avenge their loss on the Swamp last season, dropping the opening two games of the March 28 series before getting a Sunday win behind the arm of Jared Bradford.

As for the series with the Bulldogs, LSU should look to pick up where they left off last May.

Opening the weekend with a 15-6 win behind the arm of Coleman, the Tigers totaled 40 runs at the plate over three games to get the season-ending sweep.

If they can repeat that performance, and flip the results of their outcome in Gainesville, LSU is in the driver’s seat to a top-seed in Hoover.

If they can get anywhere near as hot as they were this time last year, the Bayou Bengals could be bringing home their second SEC Tournament title in two years time.


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