Posted at 11:52 am on April 16, 2018

Balls & Strikes | LSU closes out an improbable sweep

Austin Bain (Terrill Weil)
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James Moran has been the associate editor of Tiger Rag Magazine since 2014. He covers LSU football and baseball and is a graduate of the LSU Manship School of Journalism.

It’s hard to remember much of anything from LSU’s sweep of Tennessee beyond the wild comeback for the ages Sunday to clinch the perfect weekend.

Here’s a bit of a refresher looking at what went right and what didn’t go so right as the Tigers roared up the SEC West standings to get within a game of first-place Arkansas as the 30-game grind hits its halfway point.

As always, strikes are good because everybody knows pitching wins championships. Let’s begin.

STRIKES

  1. The Other Guys

Cabrera received the celebratory shaving cream pie after the kind of moment that’ll last a lifetime, but don’t forget about everyone else who contributed to make that six-run ninth inning the insane thrill ride it was.

It began innocently enough with Chris Reid coming off the bench to pinch hit and reaching on an error. Reid isn’t the most fleet of foot, as LSU coach Paul Mainieri has often references — we’re still waiting on that race, by the way — but he busted it down the line and applied some pressure on a shaky infielder.

Then came Jordan, who Tennessee continued to deploy an overshift against. Three Volunteers were on the left side of the infield while the outfield actually shaded him to go the other way.

The shift had already taken away a couple of would-be singles from Jordan, but this time there was a man on. Tennessee held the runner on in a four-run game for some reason, which opened up the whole right side of the infield for Jordan to simply ground one through the vacant second base hole.

Things began to spiral for Tennessee from there. Zach Watson grounded a ball into the shortstop hole and the Volunteers couldn’t get the force at second base. At this point the few hundred people still remaining at Alex Box Stadium are going berserk.

That forced Tennessee to make a pitching change, at which time Austin Bain sprinted from the on-deck circle to the bullpen for a few warm-up tosses just in case there was a 10th inning to pitch. We’ll circle back to that in a bit.

Tennessee brought in flame-throwing reliever Zach Linginfelter to face Antoine Duplantis. He drilled him in the shoulder with a 95 mph fastball to put the tying run on base.

“He said it felt good because he was so jacked up,” Bain said afterword.

“It kind of did, actually,” Duplantis confirmed. “I usually don’t like getting hit, especially if it’s a day where we’re winning by 10 or something, I get hit and it hurts really bad. Today it didn’t feel too bad.”

That set the stage for Bain, who had heated up a bit in the bullpen before sprinting back. He hadn’t seen any of Linginfelter’s warm-up tosses and was hoping to study Duplantis’ at-bat. Instead he wore the second pitch and it was go time.

And go he did. Bain geared up for the hardest fastball Linginfelter could muster and slammed a 96 mph heater into the right-center field gap. Two runs scored and the winning runs were in scoring position.

“Wasn’t that something?” Mainieri said. “I was happy they made a pitching change because it gave me a few minutes to let him go down and throw a few pitches. He didn’t even throw many, but he just came back and gave me a thumbs up that he was ready to go.”

Of course LSU didn’t need his services as a reliever on Sunday. Cabrera made sure there would be no extra innings required.

  1. Speak softly, but carry…

Jake Slaughter didn’t speak to reporters this weekend because he’s apparently lost his voice, but the third baseman let his bat doing the talking.

Slaughter pounded three home runs to go along with his first career triple to wreck the first two games of the series.

It was the kind of power display that Slaughter often flashes in batting practice. He hit two out just left of dead center on Friday night and homered through a howling wind to left field on Saturday that caused Mainieri to namedrop Giancarlo Stanton.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into Jake Slaughter, but whatever it is, let’s keep doing it,” Mainieri said after Saturday’s 14-5 win. “I didn’t think there was any chance that somebody would hit a home run to left field today, and that ball he hit, I didn’t know a human being could hit a ball that hard.”

Slaughter cooled off a bit on Sunday, but this weekend was a tantalizing glimpse of what Slaughter can be when his talent translates into production.

Now can he do it consistently? That’s another question entirely.

  1. Leading man

Score one for the unconventional leadoff hitter.

Moving Beau Jordan to the top of the batting order seemed to cure all the ailed an offense that had struggled mightily coming into the series — Tennessee’s pitching staff helped, too. LSU hung 32 runs on the board in three games after tallying just nine over the preceding four games.

Jordan, at Mainieri’s behest, crushed the first pitch he saw Friday night for a leadoff homer that seemed to set the tone for the weekend. He actually reached safely in the first inning of all three games and scored twice.

LSU had been looking for an answer at the top of the order since Brandt Broussard went down with a broken thumb. Jordan isn’t necessarily the same speed threat, though he did steal a base and leg out an infield since, but he finished the weekend a solid 4-for-14 with four runs scored and three RBI.

“I just felt like we needed to try some different stuff there and see if we can make it work,” Mainieri said.

BALLS

  1. Johnny Wholestaff

Here’s the one real troubling downside for the weekend: LSU’s new Sunday pitching plan will never be set up in a more advantageous position, and it still look a miracle rally to win the game.

LSU came into Sunday with its entire bullpen rested outside of Caleb Gilbert, who ate up the final three innings on Saturday night. Still, facing the second-lowest scoring offense in the SEC, LSU found itself in an early 4-0 hole after AJ Labas served up a three-run bomb.

One game isn’t a referendum on the new plan, and there likely will be weeks when LSU extends someone in a series finale, but consider this: what would Sunday look like if Zack Hess and Ma’Khail Hilliard don’t eat up 13 innings and the bullpen has already been used heavily?

  1. Trouble at the corners

The weekend was hardly a defensive clinic for either side. Tennessee’s mistakes proved to be most costly, but the fact of the matter is LSU made some errors that would have cost itself games against better competition.

Nick Coomes, starting at first base for the injured Bryce Jordan, committed two errors on Saturday. One was an ill-advised, oh-no-what-are-you-doing throw to second base that nearly allowed the Volunteers back into a one-sided game.

So Mainieri sat Coomes Sunday in favor of Nick Webre, who homered off the bench the night before. He was alright, but he seemed unaware of his surroundings and held the ball as Tennessee speedster Jay Charleston scored from second base on a botched double play ball.

Finally, there was Slaughter. The star of the first two games, Slaughter committed three cringe-worthy errors in Sunday’s series finale, playing his part in a pair of unearned runs. He was probably as elated as anyone when LSU made its comeback in the ninth.

LSU IN THE POLLS

The Tigers moved up in three of the four major polls following a perfect 4-0 week at home. LSU now sits comfortably inside the top 20 in three of four polls.

Here’s where things stand for LSU at the halfway point of SEC play. As always, last week’s rankings are in parenthesis:

D1 Baseball 19 (23)

Baseball America 18 (19)

Perfect Game 22 (22)

Collegiate Baseball 18 (25)

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