By GLENN GUILBEAU
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
BATON ROUGE – LSU lost eight, but is on the verge of an eight.
The LSU baseball team finished the regular season on Saturday knocking on the door of yet another top eight national seed after beating No. 1 Florida two games to one at Alex Box Stadium.
The Tigers were 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference after losing the opener at Auburn on April 1, and virtually anyone saying that LSU would be hosting in the NCAA postseason at that time would have looked like a fool.
LSU proceeded to go 17-6 in the league to finish 19-11 for fifth place and in the on deck circle for a top eight national seed. If the Tigers, 39-17 overall with a No. 9 standing in the Ratings Percentage Index entering the SEC Tournament, can win a couple or three games – or maybe just one or none – in Hoover, Ala., they will likely earn that top eight seed with the right to host the NCAA Regional and Super Regional rounds in Alex Box Stadium for the fifth straight year.
Amazingly, the Tigers are on the verge of a top eight seed despite losing eight every day starters from the veteran 2015 team that won the SEC, reached their second College World Series in three years and finished 54-12.
That is overachievement. That does not happen much around these parts.
These are the draft eligible and/or seniors LSU lost on its way back from Omaha last summer – catcher Kade Scivicque (.355, 48 RBIs, 6 HRs), center fielder Andrew Stevenson (.348, 24 RBIs, 26 stolen bases, 5 triples, superb speed and defense), first baseman Chris Chinea (.344, 58 RBIs, 11 HRs), third baseman Conner Hale (.327, 56 RBIs, 4 HRs), shortstop Alex Bregman (.323, 49 RBIs, 9 HRs, 38 stolen bases, superb fielder), right fielder Mark Laird (.323, 24 RBIs, 24 stolen bases, superb fielder), designated hitter Chris Sciambra (.307, 28 RBIs, 3 HRs) and second baseman Jared Foster (.278, 35 RBIs, 10 HRs).
Never in coach Paul Mainieri’s decade at LSU has he had to replace so much. Even after the 2009 national championship, he still returned outfielders Mikie Mahtook and Leon Landry, infielder Tyler Hanover, first baseman Blake Dean, shortstop Austin Nola, closer Matty Ott and ace Anthony Ranaudo, though he struggled with an injury that season.
An NCAA invite alone would be seen as overachievement this year, much less a top eight seed.
“We have a bunch of scrappy guys,” Mainieri said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. This is a testament to our team’s patience, belief and hard work. People had given up on us, but we kept striving.”
Now, LSU did take advantage of a light schedule down the stretch as it swept Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee over the last six weekends of the season. Arkansas and Missouri finished below .500 overall and in last place at 7-23 in the league and tied for 12th at 9-21, respectively. Tennessee finished tied with Missouri at 9-21.[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]”This is a testament to our team’s patience, belief and hard work. People had given up on us, but we kept striving.”[/su_pullquote]
Even the series victory over Florida was a tad tainted as the Gators were without their best hitter in junior first baseman Peter Alonso, who leads the team in batting average (.352), home runs (nine), RBIs (47) and doubles (14). He missed the series after breaking a bone in his hand when hit by a pitch the previous weekend against Vanderbilt. He could have made a difference, particularly in LSU’s 5-4 victory Friday night.
The Gators were also without the real A.J. Puk (2-3, 2.88 ERA), a 6-foot-7 junior left-hander expected to be a high first round pick in the Major League Baseball Draft next month. He started the game Friday night despite a stomach flu, and he was not himself. After two innings and 36 pitches, he had not allowed a hit, but he had had enough and left, having allowed one run with two walks and a strikeout.
The Tigers put up seven hits and three runs off Dane Dunning, who followed Puk. The Gators’ ace, junior right-hander Logan Shore (10-0, 2.29 ERA), also only pitched two and one-third innings in the opener Thursday as that game was postponed by rain, and he did not return. Of course, that also happened to LSU ace Alex Lange (7-3, 3.63 ERA). Florida didn’t have its best hitter and two of its best pitchers for normal length, while LSU was missing only Lange for the most part.
Still, LSU came within a rally or two of sweeping the No. 1 RPI team in the nation as the Gators’ 6-2 win on Saturday in the series finale was only scheduled for seven innings because of silly SEC travel rules. And this is a veteran Florida team that is perhaps its most talented squad in history.
Meanwhile, LSU spent the first several weeks of its season just trying to figure out who would make up its infield. Junior Kramer Robertson, a team MVP candidate with a .321 average, 33 RBIs, 17 doubles and 13 stolen bases after struggling his first two seasons at the plate in the .200s, was the third choice at shortstop, but has been a Bregman-esque fielder. True freshman Chris Reid, hitting .298 and fielding well, was the third choice at third base. Junior college transfer Cole Freeman was originally seen as the third baseman with Robertson at second and true freshman Trey Dawson at shortstop. Freeman has been a very good second baseman and is hitting .331 with 23 RBIs and 24 stolen bases. Sophomore Greg Deichmann is only now settling in at first base and at the plate.
LSU did return its top two pitchers from 2015, but Lange is only now regaining his All-American form of last year when he was 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA. Junior left-hander Jared Poche (6-4, 3.81 ERA) has been solid, but not like last year at 9-2 and a 3.05 ERA.
Just in time for the postseason, though, LSU has seemingly acquired two pitchers just under the trade deadline in junior college transfer right-hander Riley Smith and redshirt freshman Jake Latz. Smith was ticketed to be LSU’s No. 3 starter, but tendinitis developed in his shoulder just as the season was starting and he was not able to return to 100 percent until only recently. He shut out Notre Dame for six innings on four hits for the victory in his first start two weeks ago and then managed to beat Florida, 7-3, on Saturday in the continuation of the suspended Thursday game. Latz had elbow surgery last fall and is just now regaining the form that made him a gem of Mainieri’s 2015 class. He struck out the side in one inning of relief Sunday and was throwing in the low 90s, and Tuesday in the SEC Tournament opener, he started and gave the Tigers two scoreless innings.
Both could be key in the postseason.
“Everything that’s been happening to our team has been happening in such a positive way,” Mainieri said. “Our players are finishing strong. Everything is ascending. We beat the No. 1 team two out of three. If we can make some noise in Hoover, hopefully we’ll get a chance to host. This is the fun time of year.”
Overachieving is fun and refreshing. It has not happened often at LSU. The football team, which tends to recruit too well to have a chance to overachieve and puts more than anyone in the NFL, has not overachieved since the SEC championship season in 2011 when it was not picked to win the league, much less live the Honey Badger experience.
The basketball team, authors of the most underachieving season in LSU basketball history this past season, has not overachieved since the 2006 Final Four year. That team lost SEC Player of the Year Brandon Bass from the previous season, and Tyrus Thomas was not expected to become the star he became.
Overachieving teams tend to not have as much pressure on them as, say, the 2013 and ’15 LSU baseball teams, which rolled into Omaha with 50-plus wins and SEC Tournament and SEC regular season championships, respectively, and promptly went 1-4 in the CWS.
Who knows how far this team could last in Omaha if it gets there with not nearly as heightened expectations?
“How fortunate we were to win 19 games in the SEC after starting the season slowly with a very inexperienced team,” Mainieri said. “We’re going to be all right. I think our best days are ahead of us.”