Welcome to another edition of Balls & Strikes, our weekly wrap-up post on what went right and what went wrong from a given week or weekend for LSU.
The Tigers tied a bow around a perfect weekend and a 4-1 week Sunday with a 4-2 victory over Southeastern at Alex Box Stadium.
LSU outscored its opponents by a cumulative score of 19-3 this weekend and 33-11 for the week as a whole despite mounting injuries, so this week’s edition will be both brief and positive.
It’s only fitting to lead off with the Strikes after a weekend in which LSU pitching issued just three walks (all on Sunday). Let’s dive in.
1) Starting Pitching
The unquestionable takeaway of the weekend was the dominant outings LSU got from Zack Hess and Caleb Gilbert in wins over Toledo and Sacred Heart, respectively.
Neither of those lineups are the 1927 Yankees, but Hess and Gilbert looked like the kind of one-two punch that can win Southeastern Conference series. They logged 14.2 innings of one-run ball between them and struck out 20 without issuing a single walk.
Hess backed up his strong start against Texas with an electric 13-strikeout display on Friday night. Gilbert arguably had the more important outing, shaking off a pair of sub-par starts by taking a shutout into the eighth inning.
“It’s everything,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “Your starting pitchers are the most important players on your team. They set the tone for the whole game, and in our league, if you don’t have at least two good starting pitchers, you’re going to have a tough time competing for anything significant.”
They’ll have one more turn through the rotation against Hawaii to keep up the momentum before SEC play begins in two weeks.
2) Patient Jake
Jake Slaughter busted out of his early season-slump in a big way this week. Slaughter went 8-for-19 with a home run, six RBI and four runs scored to raise his batting average from .043 to .216 in a week.
It was in some ways a correction to the mean in terms of baseball luck. Slaughter hit a bunch of missiles right at defenders during his 1-for-23 start compared to some softly-hit balls that were fortuitous to fall in this week, aside from his clutch three-run home run at Southeastern on Wednesday.
But the thing that’s so positive isn’t Slaughter’s week at the plate in itself. It’s the fact he didn’t hang his head during a cold spell or take his struggles into the field, two freshman mistakes that eventually got him benched last season.
“I think Sean Ochinko has done a tremendous job with Jake,” Mainieri said. “Managing Jake is as much managing his mental aspect as it is the mechanics and that type of thing. He’s just such a passionate kid that you just don’t want to see him get down on himself when things don’t go well. He needs constant encouragement, and Sean is really good at that with him. I think he’s turned the corner.”
Ochinko has been working with Slaughter on not letting one at-bat affect the next since the coach re-joined the program a few weeks before LSU began practice this spring.
Baseball is a long season, and sometimes the job of a coach is simply to help players navigate the inevitable ebbs and flows emotionally.
“He’s taken huge steps forward with his maturity level about the game of baseball,” Ochinko said. “That’s going to help him in the long run. He’s gotten better at understanding that there’s going to be ups and downs, but his personality can’t go up and down.”
3) Ma’Khail Hilliard
Hilliard is becoming quite the weapon for Mainieri out of the bullpen. He logged four shutout innings apiece in wins against Grambling and Southeastern, demonstrating both effectiveness and durability.
The freshman has begun his LSU career with 12 consecutive scoreless innings. He’s given up just seven hits and struck out 11 during that span.
That’s the kind of start to a career than every rookie pitcher dreams of. When asked about it, Hilliard calmly remarked that he expected nothing less.
“I figured I’d probably do that,” Hilliard said. “Last year I did kind of the same, going on hot streaks where I didn’t allow any runs. I’m just having fun out here and trying to get W’s, really.”
His brilliant week gives Mainieri some options to ponder going into another five-game week. Hilliard could continue to function as a high-leverage situation reliever who can extend if needed, but he could also enter the conversation for a spot in the rotation if LSU continues to up his pitch count.
The staff also got deeper with the addition of AJ Labas, who started Sunday and gave LSU two scoreless innings. He threw strikes and mixed in all three pitches in a debut that should be a building block going forward.
More reinforcements are on the way, too. Right-hander Nick Storz will throw a simulated game on Monday, Mainieri said, and lefty John Kodros threw his first bullpen session of the spring earlier this week.
1) Injuries Piling Up
It’s difficult to find much to criticize from LSU in a week that featured brilliant pitching, enough offense and clean defense, but these injuries to position players have the Tigers stretched as thin as can be and the season is only three weeks old.
LSU is 7-2 since Josh Smith (back) and Zach Watson (oblique) went down, which is a credit to Mainieri and the guys who’ve filled in. It’ll be a while before Smith returns while Watson has already missed more time than anyone expected due to his muscle soreness.
“I’d still like to get those guys back, to be honest with you,” Mainieri said. “I think the guys that have stepped in have done a tremendous job. I’m really proud of them, and I think all the playing time these guys are getting will benefit us down the road. Anybody we bring off the bench at any time will already be a seasoned veteran because they’ve all played.”
The Tigers were also without Brandt Broussard on Sunday due to a tweaked groin suffered on Saturday night. He felt better Sunday, Mainieri said, but LSU opted to give him the day off anyway so he has two full days of rest with the off day Monday.
“We want to see if it can be better by the middle of the week so it’s not something that nags him for a while,” Mainieri said.
His absence left LSU with just two position players on the bench: Nick Coomes and Braden Doughty. Mainieri couldn’t recall another time in his career that he had so few extra position players.