As of 9:16 p.m., March 3, 2021, NCAA baseball’s leading home run hitting team is. . .
While the eighth-ranked Tigers haven’t exactly played Murderer’s Row on their way to an 8-1 start after Wednesday home victories of 16-1 over Southern and 5-4 over Nicholls, the way LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s team is swinging the bat with power is something the Tigers haven’t done consistently in recent years.
LSU jumped its home run total for the still-young season from 15 to 21 with two homers in the afternoon win over Nichols by freshmen Dylan Crews and Brody Drost, and then four more in the nightcap vs. Southern from Crews, freshmen Tre Morgan and Jordan Thompson and sophomore Zach Arnold.
After nine games, nine Tigers have hit homers, including seven with multiple dingers.
How has this happened?
“It’s our approach at the plate and early season pitching is a factor,” said Crews, who leads the team in batting average (.457), home runs (5), doubles (3), hits (16) and runs scored (12). “But I feel like when the SEC (games) come around, we’re going to be doing the same thing. All these guys have sneaky pop and they all grind up there.”
LSU’s offensive explosion against Southern, balanced with Tigers blowing two late inning leads vs. Nicholls before getting a ninth inning walk-off sacrifice fly RBI from Morgan, provided Mainieri different situations he thought benefitted his team.
“You learn to win close games and in the SEC you’re going to play a lot of close games,” Mainieri said. “Your team has to get used to playing those close games with defense, clutch hitting and execution. You’re glad you get tested like that.
“Then on the other hand, it’s nice to have a victory where you can coast and play a lot of guys. It’s always good for the morale of the team to empty the bench and give a lot of at-bats.”
Mainieri used 20 players in the nightcap against the Jaguars, including five pitchers led by freshman starter Will Hellmers.
Hellmers threw just 54 pitches in five innings, allowing two hits and no runs while striking out six and walking none. It was the first college start and second victory for Hellmers, who on LSU’s opening weekend vs. Air Force had five errors as a makeshift starting third baseman.
Though his first home series as a Tiger couldn’t have gone any worse, he stayed confident because of an unexpected phone call he got from former LSU star and current Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.
“Alex gave me a call and gave me words of encouragement,” Hellmers said. “We chatted for a while, it was a great phone call. In the beginning, what happened that weekend wasn’t much of a positive. But it was a great experience and very humbling. It was a great confidence booster to get back on the mound and throw those five innings tonight.”
Hellmers’ performance just added to the already-growing legend of the Tigers’ freshman class and the two junior college transfers, which has already had 14 players (seven position players, seven pitchers with Hellmers included in both areas) see action. Eight freshmen and a JC transfer have earned starts, including Crews and Morgan who have started every game.
So far, the seven first-year position players have combined for 45.2 percent of the team’s hits, 46.9 percent of the runs, 58.8 percent of the doubles, 52.4 percent of the home runs and 37.3 percent of the RBIs.
The seven first-year pitchers are a combined 3-1 with 3.25 ERA. They have struck out 43 percent of LSU’s team total and walked 50 percent of the team’s base on balls total.
“This class is very special, I’ve played with all these guys before at different events growing up,” Crews said. “They’re definitely not scared at all. They’re all grinders in the (batting) box and the field. They don’t care who you are.”
Like in Wednesday’s first game against Nicholls when the Colonels made it clear in their second game in five days against the Tigers there wouldn’t be a repeat of Saturday’s 14-0 loss.
In this rematch, LSU had to overcome a 2-0 deficit, then battled back after having one-run leads erased by Nicholls in the top of the eighth and ninth innings.
Tigers’ freshmen Crews, Drost and Morgan accounted for four of LSU’s five RBIs. Morgan doubled to lead off in the eighth and scored to tie the game, then provided the walk-off RBI sacrifice fly.
LSU wouldn’t have had a chance to stage a comeback if freshman reliever Blake Money hadn’t thrown 4.1 innings of shutout baseball after Nicholls took a 2-0 lead in the second inning off freshman starter Javen Coleman.
Money, probably the most imposing Tigers’ hurler at 6 feet, 7 inches and 265 pounds, has allowed one run, struck out eight and walked one in 6.1 innings in three appearances to date.
He’s glad to contribute to the noteworthy freshman class.
“The class as a whole is unreal,” Money said. “Guys like Dylan Crews, Tre Morgan and Brody Drost at the plate are hard to come by. It’s the pitcher’s worst nightmare for the opposing guy, but on my side I love it, especially their defense.”
The Tigers return to action Friday night at 7 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium to start a three-game series with Oral Roberts. The teams meet Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
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