Go back more than 13 months ago to March 12, 2020.
LSU’s baseball team is loading its team bus outside of Alex Box Stadium with equipment. The players are about to board for a road trip to Ole Miss for the first SEC series of the year.
And then everything halted for an unscheduled team meeting.
A few minutes later as stunned players walked to their cars, Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri emerged, gathered face-to-face with a small media contingent and announced SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said the league was suspending all athletic events through March 30 due to the worldwide pandemic of the coronavirus.
“It’s the craziest time in my life, certainly my professional life,” Mainieri told the media. “All I know is we’re not going to Oxford today and we’re not going to play baseball for the next three weeks at least.”
It wasn’t too long before the NCAA cancelled all sports for the rest of spring semester. And to this day, Mainieri and his players have conducted all media interviews via Zoom teleconference.
What if the pandemic hadn’t occurred? What if LSU had played its baseball season? What if the Tigers’ young players would have gained experience last year?
Would the Tigers have had this year’s same terrible SEC start of dropping their first four of five league series a year ago and been vastly improved this season?
That’s something no one will ever know, but at this point Mainieri still has too many problems to solve as the Tigers (22-14 overall, 4-11 SEC West) open a three-game league series at 10th ranked Ole Miss (27-10, 9-6 SEC West) Thursday night 7 on ESPNU.
First, the Rebels will be in a particularly nasty mood after losing their last three series, all 2 games to 1, at then No. 15 Florida, home to then-No. 1 Arkansas and this past weekend at No. 3 Mississippi State.
Then, the state of Mississippi has no coronavirus restrictions limiting the amount of fans allowed in its state college stadiums, so Ole Miss’ Swayze Field will be stuffed with sellouts for all three games.
“I’ve heard it’s pretty crazy at Ole Miss,” LSU sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty said. “It’s definitely different. It’s probably going to take an inning or two to settle in. I’m just really excited to look up and see a packed house. I’m hoping LSU will be like that pretty soon.”
Finally, there’s LSU’s aforementioned problems at several positions that have yet to be solved.
“We’ve talked about second base, catching hasn’t been great offensively most of the year, center field has been at times okay,” Mainieri said. “A third of your lineup has not been awesome, it puts a lot of pressure on some of the other positions.”
Like relief pitching, which also has been so poor in league games that Mainieri is taking four newbie relievers (freshmen Javen Coleman, Theo Millas and Michael Fowler and sophomore junior college transfer Alex Brady) to Ole Miss to “throw them in the fire and see what they can do,” Mainieri said.
There’s been very few things that Mainieri has been able to count on.
There’s the pitching of SEC series first and second night starters Landon Marceaux and AJ Labas. And the steady hitting of freshmen Dylan Crews and and Tre’ Morgan as well as the fielding brilliance of Morgan and freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson.
It’s just that it’s been difficult to get all areas – hitting, fielding and pitching – synched for the Tigers to make any consistent positive headway against a schedule currently ranked as the sixth toughest in Division 1 baseball. LSU is also currently ranked No. 29 in the NCAA baseball RPI.
In SEC games only, Ole Miss leads the league in hitting at .306 and LSU is 12th at .234. The Tigers are also tied for last with Missouri in runs scored.
LSU’s offense usually has been anemic against the starting pitchers in SEC play, especially in the first two games of a series.
Again, Ole Miss presents a huge challenge on the mound. Expected game one starter Gunner Hogland is seventh in ERA in SEC games only (2.51) while game two starter Doug Nikhazy leads the league in ERA in just conference games (0.70 ERA).
“We’re not where we want to be as a team, but I do think we’re evolving and getting better,” Mainieri said. “At LSU, we’re supposed to be great all the time, and I want us to be great. We’re playing a lot of young players right now, and sometimes it takes them a while to become what you want them to become. It’s hard to be patient, but we are definitely improving.”
Game 1 Thursday, 7 p.m. ESPNU
LSU – Jr. RH Landon Marceaux (4-3, 1.65 ERA, 54.2 IP, 12 BB, 67 SO)
UM – Jr. RH Gunnar Hoglund (3-2, 2.73 ERA, 56.0 IP, 16 BB, 87 SO)
Game 2 Friday, 6:30 p.m. ESPN+
LSU – Jr. RH AJ Labas (2-0, 3.35 ERA, 51.0 IP, 9 BB, 50 SO)
UM – Jr. LH Doug Nikhazy (4-1, 1.86 ERA, 38.2 IP, 16 BB, 59 SO)
Game 3, Saturday, 12 noon ESPN+
LSU – TBA
UM – So. RH Drew McDaniel (4-0, 2.97 ERA, 36.1 IP, 12 BB, 42 SO)