With the way the season had drifted off track, simply making an appearance in Hoover for this week’s SEC Tournament became a struggle.
“I wish we were going as the No. 1 seed,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri of his team’s birth into the tournament. “For a while when we were 11-4, it looked like Hoover was going to be inevitable. In the end our backs were against the wall.”
When LSU drew the lowest seed in the field, Tiger fans began digging through the data for the silver lining.
It didn’t require much research.
The team seeded eighth has upset the No. 1 seed in four straight seasons and five of the past six. This time last season, it was Vanderbilt with a 4-1 upset of the top-seeded Tigers, who also carried the nation’s top ranking.
“That is not a streak we want to see end,” Mainieri laughed.
Reflecting back on the pitching duel that saw both Ross and Minor last deep into the day, Mainieri spoke to the reality of the situation that day.
“(Vanderbilt) threw a first round draft choice (Mike Minor) at us, and we threw a No. 3 starter (Austin Ross),” he said.
With LSU ace and projected first rounder Anthony Ranaudo set to do battle with the third man in Florida’s rotation, freshman Brian Johnson, on Wednesday afternoon, the Tigers can call it déjà vu.
“Now it’s reversed,” Mainieri said. “Whose to say we can’t go out and beat Florida in the opening ball game?”
Ranaudo’s (3-2, 8.49 ERA) difficult year, set off-course by a month spent nursing an elbow injury, finished on a relative high note, seeing the junior right-hander make a pair of successful relief appearances against Mississippi State.
After taking to the hill with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Thursday’s series opener, Ranaudo allowed one run and struck out two to get the win. He also faced three batters in the final inning of Saturday’s 2-1 loss, striking out one without giving up a hit.
When fielding questions on the struggles of the team’s projected first rounder, Mainieri was quick to put Ranaudo’s importance to the stretch run into perspective.
“If Anthony Ranaudo doesn’t return to the form we know, it’s going to be difficult for us to go very far,” he said. “He has to have more command and get the ball down. It’s a matter of executing pitches.”
Given the chance Ranaudo stumbles against the Gators, Mainieri warned that he would not be hesitant to go to the next best arm in line.
Outside of Austin Ross, who is set to start Thursday’s game two for LSU, all pitchers will be on call.
“There is that sense of urgency,” Mainieri said. “We are going into the week thinking that we have to win a game or two.”
If the outcome of the week’s events keeps the Tigers on the bubble, could the defending National Champions, once 32-6 and now 36-20, be left out in the cold come postseason tournament time?
“I think our resume is as good as everyone else, and hopefully being the defending champion, they want to see you there,” Mainieri said. “I would hope our body of work already would have us qualified.”
For two-time defending SEC Tournament champion LSU, the run to make it three in a row appears to hold the highest stakes yet.
“We are excited about going to Hoover, but it’s not a clean slate,” Mainieri said. “It is still part of your resume to try to get to the NCAA Tournament. Right now all that I’m thinking about is beating the Florida Gators.”
Ross (4-4, 5.13 ERA) will take the hill for LSU on Thursday where he will face either Arkansas or Vanderbilt.