HOOVER, Ala. – The inaugural Southeastern Conference baseball tournament was in 1977 and since its inception LSU has never dropped the first game of the tournament and bounced back to win the crown.
However, after No. 8-seed Vanderbilt’s 4-1 victory over the top seeded Tigers on Wednesday night at Region’s Park, LSU finds itself in a situation that is much different from last year when they breezed through the tourney and won it all in four games – win or go home.
In the past 25 years, LSU went winless in the tournament three times. On two occasions the Tigers clawed their way to the conference championship game but came up short against Mississippi State in 1987 [13-3] and to Alabama in 1998 [9-8].
Bouncing back is something that LSU (41-16) has done numerous times this season as Paul Mainieri’s club has lost two games in a row only once this year, and two is the longest losing streak.
For now, though, Mainieri isn’t focusing too much on streaks and is only looking forward to taking the field on Wednesday against the loser of the Alabama/South Carolina contest.
“Tomorrow we play a game at 1:30 and we can’t win the championship tomorrow,” he said. “All we can do is win one baseball game, so we’re going to get ready tonight. This team is awfully resilient and they don’t hang their heads long.”
Mainieri hopes that he doesn’t face another left-handed pitcher for a while as his club is now 14-13 on the season. Odds are the Tigers will face another southpaw this year but they may not be matched up against one as good as Vanderbilt’s Mike Minor.
“It’s definitely concerning and he definitely owned our left-handers tonight, the three we had in there [Blake Dean, Ryan Schimpf and Jared Mitchell]… I don’t think anyone came close to getting a good swing against him,” Mainieri said. “But it’s not just the left-handers because the right-handers have to go up and do their job too.”
Minor threw a complete game – only his second of the year but both have come in his last three outings.
Minor (6-4) had the Tiger hitters mesmerized all nine frames with his placement as he worked all parts of the plate with a combination of fastballs, curves, sliders and changeups.
After clubbing 23 hits in 46 at bats against Mississippi State the last time they took the field, the Tigers managed only six hits off Minor with only one going for extra bases on a double to right by Tyler Hanover. Moreover, LSU's left-handed batters were 0-11 and accounted for four of the five strikeouts Minor registered.
“Mixing the pitches is what he did,” Gibbs said. “He kept us off balance and he knew what he started people off with and what he finished them off with and just mixed with that. He didn’t really have so much of his out pitch [changeup], like his best pitch, but he was able to throw all of his pitches for strikes in all counts and that’s how he was able to keep us off balance.”
LSU starter Austin Ross gave the Tigers six strong innings but Vanderbilt chased him in the seventh with back to back singles to open the inning. Ross (5-7) gave up eight hits and four runs – all earned – but he received no help.
“The bottom line is, like coach said, most days this would have been good enough to win but tonight it wasn’t,” Ross said. “I just need to do a little better and give our team a chance to win.”
Vanderbilt pushed a run across in the fourth and fifth innings off Ross and few would have thought that two runs would be enough to send the Commodores to the winner’s bracket.
“When you fall behind it’s hard to make things happen,” said Mainieri. “It’s hard to steal second base against left-handed pitchers when you fall behind. You can’t sacrifice bunt and you have to hit your way back into it. If you don’t come up with the extra base hit and keep the double play in order that’s what ends up happening.”
Next up for LSU will be the Crimson Tide and even if they have to face another leftie the Tigers will not face one as good as Minor.