To be crowned the SEC baseball champion is an achievement that carries with it a long, difficult road to be traveled.
Perhaps no stretch of that road, ironically, is made of tougher terrain than the coming weekend.
Of course, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said that he gets that feeling all too often.
“It seems like every weekend that we go into is the biggest one for us,” he said. “I know that Florida wants to win the SEC, and they have put themselves into position for that to happen. We just have to go out there and play our game.”
The Gators venture into Baton Rouge fresh off Wednesday night’s demoralizing 17-5 loss to Florida Gulf Coast University that ended an eight game win streak. The Gators are still winners in 13 of their last 16 contests, while LSU has been victorious in eight of its last nine.
With that being said, the bats will need to be hot against the Gator staff – which is highlighted by a number of southpaws.
Stephen Locke (3-0, 3.69 ERA) leads the way from the hill on Friday night, making his eighth start on eight appearances this year.
Jumping out on Locke early will be the key, as the Tigers have compiled a lackluster 12-10 record against left-handed starters on the year.
Fortunately for Mainieri, the Gator staff, which has thrived on off-speed pitches throughout the season, will be facing one of the nation’s hottest hitters in Blake Dean.
Batting .500 (7-of-14) last week with two doubles, three homers and five RBI, Dean has turned his subpar season into one that reflects the clutch-hitter that Tiger fans became accustomed to during the backstretch of last season.
Hitting just .225 on March 21, he has upped his average to .333 in just over one month’s time.
“This weekend is no different than the rest,” said Dean, who has 11 doubles, 11 homers and 48 RBI on the year. “I think we have seen our fair share of good pitching from both sides of the plate, so seeing solid left-handed arms should not be much for us. I think as long as we stay focused, things will be smooth.”
DJ LeMahieu continues to be a hot-hand at the dish as well, batting a team-high .352 (63-of-179) with 35 runs and 23 RBI.
Mitchell’s 28 stolen bases rank among the top ten in the nation, while his 36 walks are ranked fifth in the conference.
Anthony DeSclafani (5-1, 3.58 ERA) will get the start on Saturday for the visitors, with Gator head coach Kevin O’Sullivan leaving the Sunday slot open for the time being. DeSclafani has recorded a team-high 40 strikeouts, a feat that the Tiger bats will be weary of come game two.
The stat also goes a long way in telling just how talented the Gator staff has become, ranking second in the league with a 4.00 team ERA.
None too shabby in their own right, Mainieri will toss the usual Tiger rotation out this weekend.
Ranaudo (5-3, 3.28 ERA) will start on Friday, followed by Coleman (9-2, 2.71 ERA) on Saturday and Austin Ross (5-5, 4.88 ERA) on Sunday. Ranaudo leads the conference in strikeouts (105) and opponent batting average (.206), while Coleman’s nine league wins are good for best in the SEC.
At the plate Florida will look for freshman Preston Tucker to make a splash, seeing the rookie batting .354 with 63 RBI on the year.
Yet, with nearly every batter in the Florida lineup hitting over .300, can the Tigers hold back all the advances that are sure to come?
“I can tell you that we are really excited to get out there, and we are going to attack them from the start,” said Ranaudo. “I think that we have some stuff in store this weekend that people have not gotten to see from us yet.”
Tied with Ole Miss and Florida for the conference lead, the weekend series should go a long way in determining who will carry the top-seed into Hoover.
Without a series victory over Florida since 2003, the heat will surely be on. Can the Tiger bats come through against one of the league’s top staffs?
If the answer is anything like the one that the team had this time last season, the final weekend of the regular season in Alex Box could be one to remember.
# 9 Florida (34-15, 16-8) at # 3 LSU (36-13, 16-8)
Friday, May 8 – 7 p.m. CT; Saturday, May 9 – 7 p.m. CT; Sunday, May 10 – Noon CT
Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. (9,200)
· LSU - No. 3 by Baseball America; No. 3 by Collegiate Baseball; No. 4 by USA Today/ESPN
· Florida – No. 9 by Collegiate Baseball; No. 11 by Baseball America; No. 12 by USA Today/ESPN
· LSU Sports Radio Network affiliates
· The Baton Rouge affiliate is WDGL 98.1 FM
www.LSUsports.net – live video, audio and stats for all three games
· Cox Sports Television on Friday and Sunday (Cable Ch. 37 in Baton Rouge)
· Fox Sports Florida on Saturday
LSU leads, 48-31-1 (teams first met in 1971)
LSU – So. RHP Anthony Ranaudo (5-3, 3.28 ERA, 71.1 IP, 26 BB, 105 SO)
UF – Sr. LHP Stephen Locke (3-0, 3.69 ERA, 39.0 IP, 8 BB, 32 SO)
LSU – Sr. RHP Louis Coleman (9-2, 2.71 ERA, 76.1 IP, 17 BB, 92 SO)
UF – Fr. RHP Anthony DeSclafani (5-1, 3.58 ERA, 50.1 IP, 8 BB, 40 SO)
LSU – So. RHP Austin Ross (5-5, 4.88 ERA, 59.0 IP, 13 BB, 51 SO)
UF – TBA