LSU has dominated the Southeastern Conference Tournament to such an extent that fans have long taken to calling it the “LSU Invitational.”
Losing postseason games at Alex Box Stadium is mathematically less of a rarity than LSU suffering a setback at the Hoover Met. LSU had won the event six times under 12th-year coach Paul Mainieri, compiling a 31-6 record in the process.
This trip to the SEC Tournament feels a bit different, though.
No. 8 seed LSU (33-23, 15-15 SEC) draws No. 9 Mississippi State (31-24, 15-15 SEC) in a single-elimination game set for 4:30 p.m. It’s only the second time under Mainieri that LSU has had to play in the opening round, and it does so knowing an NCAA Tournament bid may hang in the balance.
“I don’t think anybody knows for sure if the NCAA bid is on the line, so I’m not going to manage differently for that reason,” Mainieri said. “I just want to win the game tomorrow night. It’s a single-elimination tournament. If we don’t win tomorrow, we’re driving home.”
Players and coach alike took the tact of stockpiling as many wins as possible and letting the chips fall where they may come Selection Monday.
Beating Mississippi State means a date with No. 1 Florida, but it would also mean advancing into the double-elimination part of the bracket with a chance for more résumé-building wins.
LSU will once again turn to veteran lefty Nick Bush to start a make-or-break game. That turned out to be the best of three options that Mainieri considered: start Zack Hess on short rest, start AJ Labas or start Bush.
Mainieri arrived at the decision in the midst of Saturday’s blowout loss to Auburn in the season finale and told Bush shortly before the team departed for Hoover on Monday.
“Just knowing we had a game we had to win to advance, I though a rested Nick Bush was our best option,” Mainieri said. “Nick has pitched great. This is a big ballpark we play in. He pitched well against Mississippi State earlier this season. Everything pointed in this direction, and I think Nick is ready for this challenge.”
Starting a left-handed pitcher also allows Mainieri to start a more offensively-minded catcher in Nick Coomes because Bush can help slow down the running game. It also forces Mississippi State star Jake Mangum to turn around and bat right-handed.
Bush has been a crucial cog in the LSU staff across a myriad of roles this season, but he’s been particularly good as a starter. He’s allowed just one earned run on eight hits in 11 innings against South Carolina and Alabama, winning a rubber match in the proves.
The veteran will attempt to cool off a Mississippi State lineup that comes into the tournament red hot off an unlikely sweep of Florida in which the Bulldogs averaged more than 10 runs per game.
One thing that can be said for certain about Bush: neither the stakes nor the streaking opponent are going to intimidate him. The Georgia native is about as cool of a costumer as they come.
“I just don’t think about that kind of stuff,” Bush said of the pressure that comes with an elimination game. “I don’t put that kind of pressure on myself. I just go out there and do my best to compete for as long as I can. It’s not hard. I just take it like it’s any other game.”
A loss in most other games doesn’t mean the season possibly coming to an end, but it’s probably best for Bush to block all that out and stay focused on the task at hand.