Tigers hoping close shaves bring focus as LSU opens SEC play at home Friday night vs. Mississippi State

As one of the two players with the most seniority on this year’s LSU’s baseball team, pitcher Matthew Beck decided to impart some of his sage wisdom.

With the Tigers several days away from the start of Southeastern Conference play, Beck made this pitch to his teammates he believed would not only help shape their focus but show their solidarity.

Four weeks into the 2021 season in which LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri lifted his ban on facial hair as a boost for his players morale amid the coronavirus pandemic, the No. 10 Tigers (15-3) are clean shaven for this weekend’s three-game league series with No. 2 Mississippi State (13-3) starting with Friday’s 6 p.m. opener in Alex Box Stadium.

“I shaved and looked down with a sink full of facial hair,” LSU junior starting pitcher Landon Marceaux, the team’s scheduled Saturday starter. “I was sorry to see it go. It was a team thing. Matthew Beck is a leader of this team. He really wanted to bring the attention to how important this next stretch is for us.”

Mississippi State, LSU’s most common SEC opponent, leads the all-time series 206-190-1. But since the arrival of LSU coach Paul Mainieri 15 years ago, he’s 36-16 against the Bulldogs and his team has won 12 of their last 13 in the series.

“Our history with Mississippi State has been filtered with some pretty good success,” Mainieri said. “We have the greatest respect in the world for them. They have an outstanding program. They’re not ranked second because they have a bad ball club. They have a really great ball club, but I think we do too, and that’s how we’re going to approach it.”

LSU extended its current win streak to six games with a 10-7 victory over Southeastern Louisiana.

It was prior to that game on Monday where Beck, who is currently injured and unable to pitch, addressed the team preparing for their clean slate in conference play with clean faces.

“He brought it up,” LSU starting center fielder Mitchell Sanford said of Mainieri. “Matthew Beck thought we should really lock it in the next couple of weeks. We decided it was a good idea. Guys were fired up.”

The return to conference play also represents a 22-month span in between the last time LSU played a SEC series. The Tigers won two of three games against Auburn on April 16-18, 2019 and were set to travel to Ole Miss for the start of last year’s SEC play when the series was cancelled because of COVID-19 which also resulted in the cancellation of the entire season after 17 games.

That means LSU has only two position players – junior designated hitter Cade Beloso and junior left fielder Gavin Dugas – and a total of 12 players on its 37-man roster that have ever played against SEC competition.

“We’ve been looking forward to this,” Sanford said. “We love playing good competition. It kind of brings the best out of us. I know the guys have been fired up all week to get after Mississippi State which is a good ball club.”

Mainieri indicated Friday’s starting lineup, that will include Sanford in center field while Giovanni DiGiacomo continues his recovery from a hamstring injury, may feature a couple of tweaks at catcher where sophomore Hayden Travinski could supplant Alex Milazzo.

He also said that because of some defensive lapses, sophomore Zach Arnold’s hold on the starting job at second base may be tenuous and that last year’s starting shortstop, sophomore Collier Cranford, may get a look at some point in the series.

“We’re always going to look at everything to make us the best team,” he said.

State has the SEC’s top pitching staff with a 2.24 earned run average and is led by Friday night starter Christian MacLeod (1-1, 1.84 ERA, 28 strikeouts, 14.2 innings). The Bulldogs are led offensively by right fielder Tanner Allen (.308, 2 HRs, 16) and designated hitter Luke Hancock (.308, 5 HRs, 18).

“They’ve got great arms,” Mainieri said. “They’ve got a solid lineup with power and speed. There’s no weaknesses. It’s what you expect when you play Mississippi State.”

LSU, which leads the nation with 35 home runs, may feature a starting lineup with seven players making their SEC debuts. Freshman right fielder Dylan Crews (.406, 6 HRs, 9 RBIs) tops that list along with sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty (.340, 8 HRs, 25 RBIs), freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan (.338, 1 HR, 17 RBIs) and Dugas (.324, 3 HRs, 20 RBIs).

Junior Jaden Hill, who began his LSU career out of the bullpen, will bring a 2-1 record and 4.24 ERA into his SEC starting debut. Marceaux (2-0, 0.00) hasn’t allowed a run in 23 innings to start the year, while Sunday starter junior AJ Labas (0-0, 3.10) has 27 strikeouts in 20 innings.

When it comes time to make a late-game move to the bullpen to preserve a lead, Mainieri said he would turn to senior Devin Fontenot in the eighth inning and freshman Garrett Edwards in the ninth.

“(LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn) AD says the SEC is Phase 2 and the postseason is Phase 3,” Marceaux said of the team’s season. “Getting into Phase 2 is a very important time and I think he (Beck) really wanted us to focus on that and we eventually shaved the beards as a fresh start.”

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