LSU took three games from Alabama three weekends ago, giving the defending national champions their second Southeastern Conference sweep of the season.
With a pair of midweek wins over Northwestern State the Tigers moved their record to 32-6, a top-five team in most rankings. With five weekends to play, securing postseason play in Baton Rouge seemed all but a done deal.
Then the ball unraveled. The pitching fell apart. When the Tigers heated up at the plate, the opposing bats got even hotter.
The team dropped three straight to Ole Miss by a combined four runs. New Orleans then caught an unfocused LSU side in the midweek, seeing Paul Mainieri’s club fall to 32-10. Another road sweep, this time at Florida, dropped the Tigers to 32-13 and nearly out of the national rankings.
Tuesday’s 9-5 win over Southeastern Louisiana at The Box marked the end of the seven-game slide. For sophomore Mikie Mahtook, it also represented day one in the team’s second season.
“We knew we were just as good as the 32-6 team we had, nobody panicked,” Mahtook said. “We are 1-0 with 10 games left. You have to take what we did [Tuesday] and move forward with it.”
After reeling off 12 straight wins to begin their title defense, a stretch like the past two weeks has the club looking to turn back the clock.
For a career built upon the level of success that Blake Dean has experienced, finding renewed confidence via a midweek win over the Lions isn’t a day he thought he would come to know.
Regardless, motivation was drawn.
“Everyone felt a relief, the weight was off our back,” Dean said. “We were capable of winning again. We knew how we started the season off. We wanted to keep playing the way we did in the beginning.”
If LSU wants back on the right track, the pitching must make big changes. Even prior to the seven-game skid, work from the mound had been suspect.
With only two secured spots, Anthony Ranaudo’s Friday night starting role and Matty Ott’s closer role, Mainieri and pitching coach David Grewe have elected to mix and match their rotation headed forward.
Instead of relying on three starting arms to last five and six innings each night out, expect the bullpen to stay active. If it takes running a new pitcher to the mound each inning, Grewe will make the move.
“You have to buy in and accept the fact that roles are different every game, and when you get called upon you have to go out there and have good stuff,” he said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge over the next 10 games. They have to accept that.”
The motto, which became the pitching staff’s favorite phrase to toss around during the 2009 run, is stick to “no-run baseball.”
“We haven’t bought into that this year,” Grewe said. “Last year we had that. We have to excel in that role. You come into the game and you have one inning for us. Throw a donut. Throws strikes. Make them hit to score runs.”
For notes on how to maintain success, look no further than Vanderbilt, who head to Baton Rouge for a conference series this Friday. The Commodores will throw Sonny Gray (6-4) on Friday, Jack Armstrong (5-1) on Saturday and Taylor Hill (4-3) on Sunday. All three pitchers have an ERA under 3.83, with both Gray and Hill over 50 strikeouts on the season.
“They have good arms,” Mahtook said. “We have to come up with an aggressive approach at the plate and put runs on the board, and our pitchers have to do what they did [Tuesday]. Keep them under five runs.”