By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The venue was different — for one, Baum Stadium is apparently less penetrable to wandering varmint than Alex Box Stadium — but there was something eerily familiar about LSU’s improbable, dramatic, come-from-behind 10-8 victory over Arkansas on Saturday night.
Even without the appearance of a four-legged creature, the wacky comeback felt like the infamous Rally Possum game all over again.
Consider that LSU staggered into the weekend having lost back-to-back Southeastern Conference series — just like last year. The Tigers had already been routed on Friday night, and appeared down for the count once Jared Poche’ got knocked out early Saturday.
The matchup came considerably earlier in the season, but with LSU trailing 8-1 — compared to 9-1 last year — and staring down the barrel of losing three straight SEC series for the first time since 2011, the last year LSU missed the NCAA Tournament, it felt as though the campaign had arrived at an early crossroad.
Like last year, LSU’s back-from-the-dead victory wouldn’t have been possible without a good bit of luck. The tying and go-ahead runs came home on an error that would’ve ended the game. LSU’s final six runs in last year’s 10-9 victory were all unearned.
Obviously last year’s club, sparked by the comeback and its mythical marsupial, snowballed the momentum into an 11-game winning streak and a fifth consecutive national seed.
Can this club repeat those exploits?
LSU sits at 22-11 and 7-5 in the SEC with 18 conference games still to play. The Tigers re-entered the top 10 in the D1Baseball.com and Baseball America polls coming off a series victory over the Hogs and find themselves one game out of an unlikely three-way tie between Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State atop of the division standings.
Paul Mainieri’s club closes out the regular season with a home series against Auburn and a road trip to Starkville. Series against Ole Miss, SEC East-leader Kentucky, Alabama and South Carolina must be dealt with in the interim, but despite more than the usual amount of panic button mashing, LSU remains in prime position to accomplish all its regular season goals if it again finishes in strong fashion.
LSU also enjoys one prime advantage that could differentiate it from last season’s plucky group of overachievers. It was on display in Sunday’s rubber match.
The development of Eric Walker gives LSU the third reliable arm that’s been so sorely missed in past postseasons. The true freshman fired the first complete-game shutout of his career in Sunday’s 2-0 victory, part of an overall streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings for the young Texan.
Finding a Sunday starter had become something of a running gag for LSU in recent years. It’s not that long ago that Johnny Wholestaff wasn’t strictly relegated to midweek duty.
The best of last year’s Sunday bunch, John Valek, went seven innings once, and that came against Sacramento State during pre-conference play. Walker has done at least that without allowing a run in consecutive SEC rubber matches.
No matter how the rest of the season plays out, LSU will be a dangerous postseason club because it can roll out Alex Lange, Poche’ and Walker in an NCAA Regional or Super Regional setting. Outside of Florida, who can match that firepower arm for arm?
Even if the unspectacular offensive production of the past few weekends proves to be the norm, that trio can dominate a short series if all three are in top form. Good pitching defeats good hitting.
So are the events of this weekend the spark LSU needs to kick back into high gear? Honestly, nobody knows at this point. Baseball is a long, strange season of hills and valleys, which makes the idea of momentum both over and underrated.
Perhaps another bizarre comeback propels LSU to another lengthy winning streak and another national seed. Stranger things have happened, to say the least. But however the final 18 SEC games go, as long as LSU finds its way into the field, it’s got the arms to be dangerous once it gets there.
After all, baseball is a postseason sport, and every year there’s inevitably a team that ‘gets hot at the right time.’ Maybe this time it’ll be LSU.