LSU begins SEC Tournament tonight against Tennessee
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU’s midseason growth from middle-of-the-pack team to national seed contender has been a living embodiment of the phrase it takes a village.
This club, particularly when compared to star-studded rosters of the past few seasons, has done it with contributions coming from all over the place. And that included some major productivity from highly unlikely sources.
Consider that the season began with Paul Mainieri figuring to rely heavily on the one-two punch at the front of his weekend rotation to buoy a roster loaded with inexperience and question marks.
Instead LSU ranked as the third-best hitting team in the SEC and won 19 league games despite not having a single starting pitcher finish the regular season with more than seven wins nor a sub 3.50 ERA.
That makes compiling this list a greater challenge than it was last season, but here are the five most crucial performers for LSU to make a deep run in Hoover and beyond — possum-free edition.
- Jake Fraley
Fraley, LSU’s lone position player with any kind of significant postseason experience, got off to a quiet start in his draft-eligible season before finishing up on an absolute tear.
The junior centerfielder rides a 17-game hitting streak into postseason play, a stretch that raised his batting average to .332, just three points off wunderkind Antoine Duplantis’ team lead. He’s been a pleasant surprise defensively, led the team with 53 runs scored and was the only Tiger to eclipse 100 total bases during the regular season.
The table-setting trio of nine-hole hitter Cole Freeman, Duplantis and Fraley — all hitting over .330 — are the catalyst that drive this LSU offense. Any or all of whom belong on this countdown, but the nod goes to Fraley because of the added dimension of his power — two of his three home runs came in the past two weeks — and that invaluable playoff experience.
- The Bullpen
One could argue that this is a bit of a cop-out, but the collective noun helps illustrate the point here that LSU’s relief corps has matured well beyond being a one-man show.
Hunter Newman has been his usual self throughout the season and Parker Bugg recaptured his 2015 form of late, but it’s been the emergence of other reliable arms that bolstered the bullpen into being one of the key components in LSU’s late season run.
Russell Reynolds, though he allowed the game-tying hit on Friday night, has thrown the ball exceedingly well. Doug Norman, Jesse Stallings and Austin Bain have had their moments, as well. Not to mention the tantalizing upside of lefty Jake Latz, tonight’s starter, who struck out four over two scoreless relief outings last week.
Mainieri will need that trend to continue into the postseason because, beyond his ace, there’s not much evidence his starters can work deep into games. Jared Poche’, though he’s appeared to right the ship with consecutive solid starts, hasn’t completed seven innings since April 7. Riley Smith and Caleb Gilbert have made all of four starts between them, none lasting beyond the sixth.
- Jordan Romero
Not long ago, Mainieri likened LSU’s playing a game at Ole Miss without Romero to the Tigers of the gridiron suiting up one Saturday sans Leonard Fournette.
Well, when was the last time Les Miles yanked his workhorse back while protecting a fourth-quarter lead?
The junior backstop led LSU in home runs (9) and finished one off the team lead in RBI (40) despite starting just 33 games. That production, coupled with steady improvement behind the plate, grabbed hold of both the starting job and cleanup spot at midseason and never let go.
Things haven’t gone quite so well for the Catholic High product of late, who finished the regular season hitless in his final 15 at-bats. There’s been defensive lapses occurring simultaneously with the skid, and Mainieri inserted Mike Papierski as a defensive replacement late in both of LSU’s victories over Florida.
That’s not as big of a concern as Romero’s bat, which is the primary reason he supplanted Papierski in the first place. Given the steady diet of off-speed stuff he saw from Florida, it appears the scouting report on Romero, a dead-red fastball hitter, has made its way around the league. He must now make the counter adjustment necessary to get himself off the skids, and do so quickly.
- Kramer Robertson
While he won’t receive the same amount of accolades or attention, Robertson has become every bit the heart and soul of his team that his decorated predecessor at shortstop was before him.
Robertson has made a remarkable ascension from two years in the dog house to being LSU’s top dog, and he’s done it with a mixture of toughness and clutch hits. It feels like an eternity ago that Mainieri moved him to shortstop to solidify the infield, and he’s played brilliantly ever since.
“I don’t know how many games he’s won for us with clutch base hits, but there’s been a few,” Mainieri said after Robertson’s latest heroics, a game-winning single to lift LSU to a 5-4 victory on Friday night. “He’s Mr. Clutch,” Duplantis added on the subject.
Plain and simple, Robertson is the leader LSU will follow to wherever end.
- Alex Lange
While it’s fair to assume Lange will only pitch once in Hoover and each of the subsequent rounds beyond it, there’s still not a more pivotal player for LSU’s postseason prospects than its right-handed ace.
Lange’s resurgence after a slow start has mirrored his team’s to some degree, and for the last two month he’s pitched like the All-American Mainieri and Co. need him to be.
Since getting rocked at Auburn on April 2, Lange has posted a 5-1 record while pitching to a 2.40 ERA and striking out 7.95 batters per nine innings. Five of his seven outings during that span have been quality starts, and one of others was his budding gem against Florida that was halted by rain after three innings.
When Lange pitches like that, LSU can beat anybody. And with Mainieri holding him out of Tuesday’s SEC Tournament opener, he just might get another crack at dueling the Gators, assuming LSU gets past Tennessee.