Paul Mainieri isn’t a coach that is going to shy about the way he feels, regardless of whether LSU is playing exceedingly well or embarrassingly poorly.
That’s why the coach couldn’t help but chuckle incredulously when a reporter asked Sunday if pitching was his “main concern” after Notre Dame hammered LSU 11-3 to take a rubber match at Alex Box Stadium.
“I’m not sure there is a main concern,” Mainieri replied. “There’s a lot of concerns. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Not quite the famous John McKay quip — What do you think about your team’s execution, Coach? I’m in favor of it — but a blunt indication of how Mainieri felt about LSU’s opening weekend. The Tigers held a lead for all of four outs and would’ve been swept were it not for two dramatic homers on Friday night.
With that in mind, let’s jump into the inaugural installment of Balls and Strikes, a weekly weekend wrap-up post of what went right and what went wrong for LSU in a given series. Kind of like the Stock Report we post after LSU football games, but with less rigid structure and a more topical name.
We’ll shoot for putting one up following the final game of every weekend series, pending me having time to do so. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Editor’s Note: Before you ask, I’ve made the executive decision that balls are bad and strikes are good for the purpose of these posts because everybody knows that pitching wins championships. There won’t necessarily be four balls or three strikes in a given post.
1) Too many balls
My little league coach reminded us on a daily basis that you can’t catch a walk, and dammit, he was right.
LSU didn’t play well in any facet of the game this weekend, but far and away the biggest problem was the inability of the Tiger pitching staff to throw the ball over the plate. LSU pitchers issued 16 walks and hit nine batters this weekend, with 12 of those free passes coming in Sunday’s game alone.
Perhaps the most alarming part is that it wasn’t just the freshmen or new guys who had trouble finding the strike zone. Zack Hess and Todd Peterson, who were strike throwers last year, handed out 10 walks in 6.1 innings of work. That’s just not going to cut it.
2) Starting Pitching
There was always going to be some growing pains with LSU having to replace its entire weekend rotation, but this was a nightmare scenario few could’ve predicted.
None of the trio of Caleb Gilbert, Hess and Peterson made it through five innings, and each departed the game with LSU trailing my multiple runs.
Gilbert didn’t hand out any walks and wasn’t hit as hard as the other two, mostly because he kept the ball in the yard, but their collective numbers this first time through the rotation speak for themselves: 10.2 innings, 18 hits, 17 runs (16 earned), 10 walks and four strikeouts.
That’s a collective ERA of 13.50.
3) Freshmen Moments
It wasn’t the fabulous debut many had hoped for from rookies Nick Webre and Daniel Cabrera, who began the season hitting second and fifth in the lineup, respectively.
Webre picked up sharply-struck hits in his first two career at-bats but went hitless over his next 11. The double play he banged into with the bases loaded Sunday looms as the largest missed opportunity for LSU in a game chocked full of them. He also cost LSU a run on Friday night with a defensive miscue.
Cabrera had an even tougher weekend at the plate, going 0-for-9, though he did show patience in drawing three walks. He was also charged with two earned runs in his debut on the mound Sunday after issuing a pair of walks in 1.1 innings of relief.
“When they started out this week they were confident and loose and their bat speed was good,” Mainieri said. “As the weekend went on, they weren’t having success and I think it started to get into their head a little bit. This is all part of the growing process.”
4) Longball Dependence
The good news is that LSU hit more home runs in the series than one might expect given the amount of power production the Tigers are replacing from last season’s lineup.
The bad news is, aside from those four home runs, LSU didn’t generate much of anying offensively. Nine of the 15 runs LSU scored this week came via the big fly.
Notre Dame pitching had its own problems throwing strikes, issuing 21 walks and hitting three batters, but unlike the Irish, LSU wasn’t able to capitalize on those free passes with sustained rallies. LSU went 3-for-19 (.158) with runners in scoring position between Saturday and Sunday.
“We had opportunities,” Mainieri said.
1) Jordan Brothers
There wasn’t much in the way of positive takeaways from this weekend, but the biggest one is that Bryce and Beau Jordan did damage throughout their first series back in the lineup together.
Beau was far and away LSU’s most productive bat against Notre Dame. He hit .500 (4-for-8) with two solo home runs, two doubles, three walks and four runs scored. He knows he’s going to have to hit to stay in the lineup moving forward, and this was quite the start to the season.
The senior also showed a bit of leadership with the fiery message he gave the young club during a brief meeting in the outfield following the last out Sunday. That’s something LSU needs as it deals with a vocal leadership void left by veterans like Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman and Mike Papierski.
“I told everybody that LSU has a legacy to uphold, and weekends like this, that’s not LSU’s legacy,” Beau said. “I’ve been a part of three really good teams, and this weekend, it wasn’t fun.”
Bryce struck the big blow of the weekend in his first game since the 2016 Super Regional with his grand slam to bring LSU back to life on Friday night. He finished the weekend 2-for-7 (.286) with a couple of runs scored.
It was a bit of an adventure behind the plate for him, which isn’t surprising given he hadn’t caught a full game since high school, but we’ll dive deeper into the catcher situation and LSU’s struggles controlling the running game in a story that’ll be posted online Monday.
2) Brandt Broussard
The former Delgado Dolphin quietly had a nice first weekend at second base for LSU.
He went 2-for-7 (.286) at the plate and drove in three runs on Saturday to go along with some nicely-executed sacrifice bunts. Also, channeling his predecessor, Cole Freeman, he turned a single into a de facto double with a nice piece of heads-up base running on Sunday.
Broussard also was among the few Tigers to make a positive impact on the games defensively this weekend. He started both of the double plays LSU turned this weekend, one a conventional ground ball and the other a hot smash he snow coned before firing to first base to double off a runner.