By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU returns to Alex Box Stadium tonight after breaking for exam week to begin a three-game series against South Carolina, the start of an eight-game home stand as the Tigers head down the stretch of the regular season.
With three Southeastern Conference weekends remaining, LSU (30-15, 13-8 SEC) finds itself one of seven teams within a game of the overall conference lead. They’ll take on a South Carolina (26-17, 10-11 SEC) still reeling from the loss of their ace, Clarke Schmidt, to Tommy John Surgery.
The Tigers have had a habit of finishing with a flourish under Paul Mainieri. LSU won 10 of its last 11 games last season to secure a fifth straight national seed and had won at least seven of its final 11 games in nine of his 11 seasons at the helm.
“It’s something that I’ve always preached that I want us to be a better team in March than February,” the coach said. “I want us to be a better team in April than in March. And I want us certainly to be a better team in May than in April.
“And here we are, it’s May. We’ve got 11 left, and I want our team to be the best team that we’ve been now, and beyond.”
LSU has dealt with inconsistency from its lineup and pitching staff, starter and bullpen included, at times this season. Still, the club hits this home stretch with all of its goals still on the table because of the wide open nature of the SEC race.
The unsung hero in keeping the Tigers afloat through rough times: the league’s best defense.
The Tigers lead the SEC with a .983 fielding percentage this season and have committed an SEC-low 29 errors. Both are on pace to set new program records. Florida, another pitching and defense stalwart, is second with a .980 fielding percentage and 34 errors.
Mainieri wasn’t sure it’s the best defense he’s ever had — the 2012 group led by Alex Bregman, Christian Ibarra, Andrew Stevenson, Mark Laird and Ty Ross comes to mind — but it is the most “steady.” Josh Smith’s consistency at third base and Greg Deichmann’s arm in right field have elevated the defense from where it was last season.
Good defense alone isn’t enough to win baseball games, typically. But giving away extra outs or extra bases are the kind of thing that tend to make all the difference this time of year.
“If you can pitch and play defense well, then you’re always going to have a chance to win,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “It’s kind of kept us in a lot of games and given us a chance, because most of the games we’ve lost have been relatively close.
“I’ve said it before, I think this is a team that’s built to win down the stretch. It’s going to be a tough team to beat once we reach the postseason, but we can make things easier for us if we play well down the stretch.”
Here’s the pitching matchups and broadcast information to know for the weekend:
LSU – Jr. RHP Alex Lange (5-4, 3.31 ERA, 65.1 IP, 26 BB, 86 SO)
SC – Jr. RHP Wil Crowe (4-4, 3.56 ERA, 68.1 IP, 22 BB, 63 SO)
LSU – Jr. LHP Jared Poche’ (7-3, 3.55 ERA, 66.0 IP, 16 BB, 46 SO)
SC – So. RHP Adam Hill (3-3, 2.30 ERA, 54.2 IP, 28 BB, 62 SO)
LSU – Fr. RHP Eric Walker (5-1, 3.69 ERA, 61.0 IP, 14 BB, 52 SO)
SC – TBA
Friday, May 5 – 7 p.m. CT
Saturday, May 6 – 7 p.m. CT
Sunday, May 7 – 2 p.m. CT
Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field in Baton Rouge, La.
LSU – No. 11 USA Today; No. 11 Collegiate Baseball; No. 12 D1 Baseball; No. 15 Baseball America
SC – No. 25 Collegiate Baseball
LSU Sports Radio Network; in Baton Rouge on WDGL 98.1 FM
Radio broadcast and live stats for all LSU baseball games are available at www.LSUsports.net
Friday – SEC Network + (online only), accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
Saturday – SEC Network (TV), also available online at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
Sunday – ESPN (TV), also available online at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
LSU leads the overall series with South Carolina, 34-25-1; the Tigers and Gamecocks first met on the diamond in 1992. LSU has won 12 of its last 17 games with South Carolina, including a 2-1 series victory when the teams last met in 2015 at Columbia. This weekend marks South Carolina’s first visit to Baton Rouge since 2013, when the Gamecocks won two of three games over the Tigers.
LSU has won four of its last five SEC regular-season series versus South Carolina. LSU posted a three-game sweep over USC in Baton Rouge in 2008, a 2-1 series victory in Columbia in 2009, a 2-1 series victory in Columbia in 2012 and a 2-1 series victory in Columbia in 2015. The Gamecocks’ only series win in the past five meetings came in 2013, when South Carolina won two of three games over LSU in Baton Rouge.