Welcome back for our second — and an infinitely more optimistic — edition of Balls & Strikes.
While the week ended with a thud in the form of an 11-1 loss, LSU still managed to take the series from a ranked Texas club and completed a solid 3-1 week. That certainly qualifies as a bounce back considering how poor LSU played against Notre Dame on opening weekend.
“Definitely is a productive weekend,” outfielder Antoine Duplantis said. “Even though we lost today, I still think it was part of the learning process. We came out the first two nights and played with a lot of intensity. We played really well in two high-emotion games, but it shows that if we come out flat-footed Sunday, teams are going to put it on us.”
Let’s jump right into some of the things that went better this week before delving into the problem areas that persisted through week two.
1) Zack Hess
This is certainly the biggest positive of the whole weekend in my opinion. For as lost in the wild as Hess looked in his season debut, he looked that much like the dominant ace LSU needs against Texas.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri told him to attack the first inning like a closer would the ninth, and he struck out the side to set the tone for a 13-4 blowout win.
“I think the big thing for me was to get that first one out of the way,” Hess said on Friday night. “Just go out there and have a nice clean inning and kind of establish the strike zone early on. That really helped me for the rest of the night.”
Hess allowed just two runs on five hits and only walked two while striking out a career-high 10 in six innings. His fastball velocity sat at a steady 92-94 mph throughout the game and even his get-me-over sliders were buckling hitters at the knees.
LSU would like him to be more economical in the future where he can pitch into the later stages of the game — he threw 99 pitches in six innings — but considering he owns the team’s only quality start to date, LSU will take it as a great effort to build on from Hess.
2) The Replacements
LSU deserves additional credit for the 3-1 week considering it played all four games without two of its three best position players, shortstop Josh Smith and center fielder Zach Watson.
The Tigers are going to have to get used to playing without Smith, who’ll miss at least a month with a stress reaction in his vertebrate.
His absence was compounded by losing Watson for the week due to a “tweaked” oblique. Mainieri said he got treatment on the injury Saturday, felt better Sunday and could return to the lineup as soon as Wednesday against Southeastern or some time next weekend.
The effect of their absence was lessened by strong performances by the two players who stepped into their marquee positions.
Freshman Hal Hughes played a clean shortstop in his first four games in Smith’s stead and did more with the bat than anyone could have anticipated. He finished the week 5-for-15 (.333) with five RBI and three runs scored. He brought home the go-ahead run with a squeeze bunt against UNO.
Meanwhile Duplantis more than held his own in center field, a position he played all summer in the Cape Cod League. He turned in at least four run-saving web gems on Saturday and Sunday alone.
However, as Mainieri noted, LSU will be stronger in the outfield once Watson returns and Duplantis can slide back over to right field.
“I thought Antoine did great out there, and we’re lucky to have someone as good as him to put in center field,” Mainieri said. “But we’re better with both of them out there. The outfield we had out there today reminded of 2012 in the super regional when we were a step short of making a few catches.”
3) Dual-threat Austin Bain
Bain pulling double duty as LSU’s designated hitter and closer isn’t going away anytime soon.
The senior showed some serious power to the opposite field this week when given consistent at-bats. He went 5-for-17 (.294) with four RBI and three runs scored this week. He’s now hitting .389 on the young season and four of his seven hits have been doubles.
Bain hit an RBI double to dead center during LSU’s pivotal five-run rally on Saturday night and then came in to close out the 10-5 victory. He loaded the bases before getting a popup and a strikeout to slam the door shut on a series win.
“Still getting the hang of it, but it’s fun,” Bain said on Saturday night. “As a pitcher, I’m pretty much throwing as hard as I can. As a hitter, I’m trying to hit it as hard as I can. It fired me up. I felt loose tonight.”
4) Leadoff Spot Solved?
LSU appears to have solved its leadoff conundrum and gotten one of its most talented hitters going with one move.
Daniel Cabrera moved into the leadoff spot and quickly put a 0-for-9 opening weekend behind him. He went 6-for-18 (.333) this week with six RBI and three runs scored. He also launched his first career home run to provide some insurance heading into the ninth inning on Saturday.
1) Rest of the Rotation
LSU got its ace going in the right direction, but the next two starters were more of the same. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers have allowed double-digit hits in every game this season besides Friday night.
Neither Caleb Gilbert nor Todd Peterson were able to record an out in the fifth inning. Both threw more strikes than they did in their first start, but Texas tagged them for five runs apiece and a combined 17 hits in eight-plus innings.
Here’s a look at their respective stat lines through two turns of the rotation:
Gilbert | (0-0, 10.80 ERA) 8.1 IP, 20 H, 11 R (10 ER), 2 BB, 3 K, 3 HR allowed
Peterson | (0-2, 9.00 ERA) 8 IP, 11 H, 8 ER, 6 BB, 4 K, 1 HR allowed
“I thought in Gilbert’s case he threw the ball pretty well, but his location with two strikes was not good,” Mainieri said. “He had a lot of guys down in the count and couldn’t put them away … Peterson is doing the best he can. He doesn’t have an awesome repertoire. He’s going to pitch to contact, and you hope they hit them at somebody and that you make the plays for him.”
2) Jake Slaughter
Concern is growing as Slaughter’s slump to begin the season has now lasted two full weeks.
The sophomore third baseman is now 1-for-23 (.043) on the young season after posting a 1-for-16 (.063) week in four starts. He also had another towering foul popup glace off his glove on Friday night that allowed Texas to have a two-run rally against Hess in the second inning.
Mainieri saw some positives in his at-bats Wednesday and in the first two games against Texas, even if the stats don’t necessarily show it, but he acknowledged a step backward in Sunday’s series finale.
“I thought Slaughter swung the bat exceptionally well last night,” Mainieri said. “When he hit that ball to right-center, I thought it was out of the ballpark. He crushed that ball. Then later he smoked a ball right at the shortstop.”
He continued: “Then today he didn’t swing the bat with the same aggressiveness and confidence. His swing path went back to what he was doing prior to the last few days. He swung good against UNO and on Friday and Saturday, but didn’t have anything to show for it because of bad luck. Today it seemed like he started to press and forgot about everything that (hitting coach) Sean (Ochinko) has been working with him on. I’ve played this game. When you’re not getting hits, whether you’re hitting the ball hard or not, it starts getting in your head. It’s all part of the maturation process.”
The coach didn’t drop any hints about benching Slaughter, but with Hughes, second baseman Brandt Broussard (team-leading .478 average and team-high 10 RBI) and pinch hitter Chris Reid (3-for-8, .375) all swinging the bat well, that could change if the slide continues.