HOOVER, Ala. — So comes and goes another whacky, wet and wild edition of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
LSU came to Hoover simply looking for a win or two in order to secure its spot in the NCAA Tournament, so making it to Sunday’s tournament finals — the Tigers are the first team under the current format to do so after playing on Tuesday — is quite the achievement, despite the fact it ended with a thud.
Here’s some parting thoughts from LSU’s SEC Tournament run and what it means heading into the NCAA Tournament before this reporter embarks on a long drive home.
- Confidence is Key
Once Sunday’s disappointment fades away, which it should rather quickly, LSU will leave Hoover a far more confident bunch than it arrived.
The Tigers came to the SEC Tournament as an NCAA bubble team stuck with the moniker of being unable to win away from Alex Box Stadium. The Hoover Met is pretty friendly confines, but a 4-2 run while navigating a variety of weather delays is the kind of crash course in tournament toughness this young team could certainly use before heading into a true hostile environment next weekend.
“We’re not going to play any better teams in a regional or super regional than we did this week,” Antoine Duplantis said. “Coming together to beat some really good teams, I think that’s just a positive in itself.”
LSU never hit the ball particularly well this week, but the performance of a pitching staff that has run hot and cold all season is cause for optimism. More on that in thoughts two and three.
- I’m Back, Baby
Arguably the most crucial development of LSU’s week in Hoover came on Saturday night. After weeks of mediocracy, Zack Hess looked like the dominant front-line starter the Tigers need him to be.
Hess, attacking the zone and mixing in a changeup, stymied a loaded Arkansas lineup to just one hit over seven strong innings. Not even an 86-miniute rain delay could phase LSU’s man on a mission.
After allowing 21 earned runs in his previous 29 innings, good for a bloated 6.52 ERA, it was a sight for sore eyes to see Hess dominate a powerhouse lineup in such a way.
“That’s why I have never, ever, ever given up on Zack Hess,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Saturday. “Today he went out there and competed like crazy and showed why I think he’s one of the best pitchers in the country.”
LSU is a different team when Hess is pitching like that. Specifically the kind of team that can be quite dangerous in an NCAA Tournament settling.
- Two Dudes
The SEC Tournament affirmed LSU suddenly has two hard-throwing relievers it can count on coming out of that formerly disastrous bullpen.
Todd Peterson had already begun to establish himself as a potential closer before this week, but he took things up a few notches in Hoover. He nailed down a two-inning save against Mississippi State and played the hero with five scoreless innings and a two-run double to vanquish South Carolina.
Cam Sanders on the other hand was a brand new revelation. He made three appearances in this tournament and was flat-out dominant every time, He allowed three hits and didn’t walk a batter while striking out 12 in 8.1 scoreless innings.