Unconventional Tigers hope to growl long and loud as `Road Dogs’ in Super Regional opener at Tennessee

LSU's baseball team ties its shoes tight prior to Friday afternoon's practice in Tennessee's Lindsey Nelson Stadium where the Tigers and Vols play Saturday's NCAA Super Regional opener at 6 p.m. CT.

There’s not much normal about LSU’s 2021 baseball team and season.

Its two leading hitters are future first-round major league draft choices disguised as true freshmen.

Its best pitcher has a record of 5-6 as a starter (1-0 as a reliever) because in 10 of his last 12 starts his team’s offensive support has been two runs or fewer.

Its catcher, who has major league arm strength, blocks so many pitches in the dirt every game he should be wearing body armor and a titanium protective cup the size of a lettuce bowl.

Its first baseman is one-third ballerina, one-third gymnast and one-third Spiderman and is pleasantly surprised when one of his infielders makes a throw to him that doesn’t require a high degree of difficulty to catch.

Then, there’s something these Tigers have done that none of LSU’s College World Series teams ever did – lose four of five SEC home series and then win four of five SEC road series, win a road NCAA regional and somehow position themselves two wins away from a 19th trip to the College World Series.

Even though the 38-23 Tigers open Super Regional play Saturday at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN2 at 48-16 and No. 3 national seed Tennessee, the only SEC locale where LSU lost a league series this season, it seems retiring Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri’s team is at its best in hostile environments.

“The kids are starting to take a lot of pride in it, they refer to themselves as the `Road Dogs,’” Mainieri said. “They huddle up and start barking like dogs. It’s kinda cute.”

The Tigers’ road bite is equal to their bark.

LSU won its last four SEC road series at Kentucky, Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas A&M. It was swept in its first league road series at then-12th ranked Tennessee March 26-28 by a combined four runs.

It certainly was an eye-opening experience for the Tigers since 15 (8 freshmen, 6 sophomores, 1 junior college transfer) of the 23 LSU players that saw action vs. the Vols were playing in their first SEC road series. None of the Tigers’ sophomores had a chance to play league games in 2020 when the NCAA ended the season before SEC play started because of COVID-19.

After returning to Baton Rouge following losing to the Vols 3-1, 9-8 in 11 innings and 3-2 in eight innings of a scheduled seven-inning game, Mainieri described the Tennessee crowd, even at 25 percent capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions, as “an extremely hostile environment. . .they were nasty, they were being nasty, nasty.”

Mainieri apologized Friday afternoon in a Zoom teleconference after LSU’s practice.

“These are wonderful people here,” he said. “I kind of put my foot in my mouth there, but it also got blown out of proportion. I did not mean to criticize anybody from this city or state.”

LSU veterans like junior outfielder/second baseman Drew Bianco didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

“With only being 25 percent capacity, you could hear what they were saying a lot clearer than it would if it was at 100 percent capacity,” Bianco said. “You could literally hear every word they were screaming. I wouldn’t say they were hostile. They were just fans being fans.”

Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said earlier this week he hopes that UT fans pack Lindsey Nelson Stadium, a shoebox that seats a mere 4,283, for a second straight weekend after the Vols won three straight games to capture a regional they hosted.

“You know, about this coming weekend, if it’s anything like last weekend, make it that,” said Vitello, whose team is hosting a Super Regional for the first time ever. “So, if you want to call that nasty, make it that.”

The only home SEC series Tennessee lost this season was against Vanderbilt. The teams combined for 15 (8 by Tennessee, 7 by Vandy) home runs with the Vols hitting four each in game two and game three.

Keeping the ball in the ballpark will be at a premium for both the LSU and Tennessee pitching staffs.

The Vols’ cozy stadium (320 feet to the left and right field walls compared to 330 in LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, 390 to straightaway center field compared to 405 in Alex Box) has yielded 41 home runs in SEC play, third most among the SEC home stadiums. LSU and Missouri’s stadiums have given up the least homers in league games with 28 each.

Tennessee has hit 92 home runs in 61 overall games compared to LSU’s 88 in 64 games. Senior Ma’Khail Hilliard and junior Landon Marceaux, LSU’s game one and game two starters respectively against the Vols, are on red alert for Tennessee’s big bats swinging for short fences. AJ Labas will be the Tigers’ game three starter if necessary.

“I know Tennessee is very explosive,” Hilliard said. “But I’m going to go right at them, try and put them away early in counts and let my defense work.”

Normally, Marceaux is the Tigers’ opening game starter of any series, but Mainieri said he’s starting Hilliard to give Marceaux an extra day of rest.

Both Hilliard and Marceaux saw action in LSU’s 9-8 win over Oregon on Monday to win the Eugene Regional. Hilliard started and threw an almost flawless 14-pitch first inning before he was immediately removed by design. Marceaux threw 46 pitches in 2.1 innings of one-run relief, getting the win as the closer.

“I tried to talk him (Mainieri) into letting me start (in game one vs. Tennessee), but he explained to me why he was starting Ma’Khail,” Marceaux said. “I just know I’m going to be ready whenever he calls me.”

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Ron Higgins

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