Nearly three months after their initial meeting, one in which LSU had to rally past Louisiana Tech for a 16-7 home victory on Feb. 22, the two teams meet once again Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Alex Box Stadium under totally different circumstances.
The No. 14 Bulldogs (33-12) emerged from their first loss of the season to become one of Top 25 teams in the country, one that’s in contention for the Conference USA’s Western Division championship and is considered to be comfortably in NCAA’s field of 64 teams.
LSU’s season, much like that chilly February game in which they rallied with 14 runs after the fifth inning, has been more of a roller-coaster ride that’s headed for an uncertain finish.
The Tigers (29-18) are in 11th place in the SEC’s overall race with the league’s top 12 teams qualifying for the conference’s tournament, a destination that will require additional work over the next two weekends to reach.
“I think it’s a critical game,” LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said. “They’re all important. When you’re playing a team with a high RPI and your RPI’s as good as well, if you win that game it can certainly help you.”
With La. Tech carrying an RPI of No. 24, the relevance of LSU’s latest midweek game where the Tigers are 14-0 this season, is heightened significantly.
LSU (RPI of 22) will also host Alabama (RPI of 29) in another key three-game SEC series beginning Friday before the Tigers entertaining Northwestern State on May 18 and travelling to Texas A&M on May 20 to close out the regular season.
“I’ve told our players this is the most important week of the season,” Mainieri said. “There’ no sugarcoating it. If you want to play in the NCAA tournament, we have to get the job done this week.”
While LSU also boasts an impressive strength of schedule of No. 3 nationally, another layer of the resume that could be helpful in the eyes of the NCAA, the Tigers must also focus on stockpiling as many conference wins where a prerequisite for regional play could range between 13-14.
“The kids understand the big picture,” Mainieri said. “We are in precarious position. We’re not in a wonderful position. We know that. We’re trying to win every game that we play.”
The first leg of this week’s journey for LSU, weather permitting, is trying to maintain its perfect midweek record, which also includes an 11-0 mark against in-state opponents.
Mainieri said it’s been eight years since his last LSU team went undefeated in midweek play, something he said the Tigers accomplished in back-to-back years against improved competition.
“I was very proud of that,” Mainieri said. “We’ve always taken the midweek games very seriously and done our very best. The reality is the in-state schools are very good. They’ve upgraded their programs through the years and they have good coaching and good players. They’re very formidable opponents.”
In its first trip to LSU, La. Tech took a 4-2 lead through five innings and rocked starter AJ Labas in the process. The Bulldogs recorded three home runs as part of their 14-hit attack.
However, LSU matched that 14-hit onslaught, and rallied behind Gavin Dugas’ sixth-inning grand slam when the Tigers scored 12 of their 14 runs between the 6-7-8 innings. Dylan Crews and Jordan Thompson also collected home runs in the victory.
Freshman Will Hellmers (6-1, 2.94 ERA) is LSU’s scheduled starter and is matched against La. Tech’s Jarret Whorff (8-1, 3.15) who is a weekend starter, but is available to pitch because the Bulldogs’ doubleheader Sunday at Florida International was rained out.
Mainieri said in the event Tuesday’s game is rained out, he’s open to playing Wednesday if there’s a mutual agreement with La. Tech coach Lane Burroughs.
“They have very good programs,” Mainieri said of in-state programs. “It’s hard to win all the time in baseball. This year, for whatever reason, we’ve won all the midweek games and we’re going to do our best against Louisiana Tech and hopefully keep that winning streak going.”