By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The Tigers are two wins from a trip to Omaha. All that stands in their way is an old friend and its most bitter Southeastern Conference rival.
What must LSU do to get those wins before Mississippi State can do the same?
Well, in a general sense, just keep doing what they’ve done during their current 14-game winning streak. LSU has played as well in the country over the past month, and if the Tigers continue to play at a high level in all three facets of the game, they’ll be difficult to defeat in a raucous Alex Box Stadium.
But in a more specific sense, here’s the three keys to an LSU victory in the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
KEY 1: DON’T LET BRENT ROOKER RUIN THE SEASON
Hello Captain Obvious, right?
Mississippi State Brent Rooker has put up a season unlike any in the long and decorated history of SEC baseball. The SEC Player of the Year is the first man in league history to put up 20+ home runs, 30+ doubles and 75+ RBI in a single season.
It’s in no way an overstatement to suggest the right-handed swinging slugger could mash the Bulldogs to Omaha this weekend — if given the opportunity.
“You’re playing with fire when you try to get Rooker out,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s always one swing away from doing something awesome. He’s the straw that stirs the drink for them, and I don’t think anybody in the country can stop him.
“You pick and choose the times you go after him. I don’t think you totally don’t go after him and I don’t think you go after him every time. You’ve got to be smart enough with the situation of the game.”
Rooker went 7-for-13 as the Tigers swept the final three games of the regular season in Starkville, but LSU managed to keep the prolific slugger in the yard. He drove in just two runs in the series, a modest weekend by his Herculean standards.
The imperative, as LSU’s pitchers tell it, isn’t so much how they attack Rooker himself, but making sure they get the hitters out in front of him to limit the damage he can do.
It sounds simplistic, but Rooker can only drive in one run — himself — whenever he comes up to hit with the bases empty.
“Baseball is a pretty simple game, so I think that’s about as easy as you can put it,” LSU ace Alex Lange said. “If you get guys out in front of guys who can do damage, then they can’t do as much damage. If you keep guys off base in front of Rooker, solo homers aren’t going to beat you. Three-run homers will.”
Lange has had success against Rooker in their career meetings, limiting the All-American to 2-for-8 while striking him out twice. He’s 3-for-10 lifetime with an RBI against Jared Poche’ and went 2-for-2 and drew a walk in his only meeting with Eric Walker.
KEY 2: PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Amid a rash of arm injuries, Mississippi State’s pitching limitations have been well documented. However, the Bulldogs have an All-SEC caliber ace in lefty Konnor Pilkington.
Pilkington has a mid-90s fastball and put-away curveball, meaning he’s got the requisite stuff to shut down even the hottest lineup when he’s on his game.
“The one thing that makes him effective is it’s control, not command,” LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs said. “Like he’s not going to spot up. He’s going to throw and let it go where it goes. You won’t have a feel for where the ball is going to be, and at 95-96 mph, it’s tough.”
For LSU, the imperative will be to do exactly what they did so well in Starkville three weeks ago: run up the nasty southpaw’s pitch count and get him out of the game as quickly as possible. Pilkington held LSU to two runs in that start but left after six innings having thrown 107 pitches.
“You hope you can tire him out and get to the bullpen,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “Fight him off. Do whatever you can to put the ball in play and make him throw pitches. That’s going to be the approach tomorrow.”
Once Pilkington is out of the game, a patient approach can pay major dividends for LSU. As a staff, Mississippi State allows 5.32 walks per nine innings, which ranks No. 267 among Division I teams.
Any free passes will be beneficial for LSU in a series in which extra outs will be hard to come by. Mississippi State has a .981 fielding percentage this season, which ranks eighth-best nationally. LSU is right behind them in that regard at .980.
KEY 3: NEVER LET UP OFF THE GAS PEDAL
One thing has become abundantly clear in Cannizaro’s inaugural season at Mississippi State: his Bulldogs never stop fighting.
Mississippi State won four games in 36 hours to advance out of the Hattiesburg Regional after losing their first game. The always-upbeat coach has already shown a penchant for manufacturing belief when the odds are stacked against them.
Nobody has given the Bulldogs much of a chance this weekend — a 17 percent chance of advancing, according to a graph Cannizaro tweeted out Friday — and they’ve come to embrace a shock-the-world mentality.
“It’s been that way all year,” Cannizaro said. “Our players have been incredibly resilient all year. There’s so much fight; there’s so much heart with our guys. They never give up.”
The numbers bear that out. Mississippi State leads the nation with 25 come-from-behind victories this season, and with a lineup lead by an all-world slugger in Rooker, no lead is safe against this club.
If LSU manages to get ahead early, it needs to pour it on while it has the chance, because the Bulldogs, true to their name, aren’t going to stop coming.
“It is what it is at this point,” Cannizaro said. “It’s kind of one of those things where our team has embraced the reputation that we have right now. Our guys have embraced the role of the underdog, and they don’t give in. They get after it and I’m proud as heck to be their head coach.”