By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Kramer Robertson doesn’t look at NCAA Tournament projections.
He’ll ask where LSU stands, should someone else be looking at one, but says he doesn’t won’t seek them out on his own. For the most part, the shortstop buys into his coach’s prescribed one-game-at-a-time mantra and believes in letting the chips will fall where they may.
That’s the best way to make it through the long grind of a baseball season with all its ebbs and flows. But for Robertson and the rest of LSU’s veteran core, a quick peek around those blinders reveals that there aren’t many games left at this point.
LSU will host Auburn in a pivotal three-game series set to begin Thursday night at Alex Box Stadium. With two weekends left in the regular season, the Tigers prepare to play their final Southeastern Conference home series of the year.
And given the crowded, chaotic nature of the SEC race, there’s no guarantee the Tigers will host another game after it takes on Northwestern State in the season’s final midweek game next Tuesday.
“It definitely hasn’t hit me yet that I’m running out of time here,” Robertson added. “I’m just trying to soak it all in and embrace it. Make as many memories in these last weekends as I can.”
It sets up quite the interesting dynamic for the Auburn series.
On the one hand, LSU will honor a senior class Saturday headlined by Robertson, his double-play partner, Cole Freeman, four-year rotation stalwart Jared Poche’ and closer Hunter Newman.
Add in Alex Lange and Greg Deichmann, juniors projected to be early-round draft picks next month, and that’s a lot of star power that could conceivably be playing their final meaningful games ever at the Box this weekend.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Lange said. “It goes fast, but it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed pitching here and enjoyed my time this year. I try to embrace this environment as much as possible because it is so much fun to pitch here. It is my favorite place to play. That’s why we want to host. If we take care of business and we win, we will play here more often than not.”
LSU will hold a private graduation celebration for those seniors on Friday afternoon before the traditional Senior Day festivities take place prior to Saturday’s series finale.
But on the other hand, should the Tigers play well these next three weeks, the chance to have the road to Omaha run through Baton Rouge remains very much alive.
“It’s going to be a very emotional weekend,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I think our guys’ attitude is were going to get the job done in these last two weeks and the SEC Tournament and we’re going to be back here for an the regional. We’re going to have that mindset and try not to be too nostalgic.”
LSU (32-17, 15-9 SEC) enters the weekend just one game behind Florida and Mississippi State for the outright conference lead. According to projections released Wednesday from D1Baseball.com and Baseball America, the Tigers would be regional hosts if the season ended today.
In a typical season, 20 conference victories means an SEC title and a national seed. Reaching that plateau would require LSU to go 5-1 in six remaining games against Auburn and Mississippi State. The former is only two games off the pace itself. The former is presently leading the western division.
Mainieri, by nature a detailed, goal-oriented planner, says he doesn’t want his team setting any target record in their head for this final sprint to the finish line.
“All I’m worried about is tomorrow’s game,” Mainieri said. “Sometimes when you put those kind of goals on, it just seems very daunting … We can sit around amongst ourselves and talk about that, but I really don’t want the players to think about that.”
Though Auburn comes in on a four-game losing streak, having been swept at home by Alabama last weekend, don’t expect anything to come easy for LSU this weekend. Butch Thompson has transformed Auburn’s pitching staff into one of the league’s best in his second year as head coach.
Auburn will throw lefty Andre Mitchell, a New Orleans native who spent the 2014 season redshirting at LSU, in the series opener before handing the ball to the one-two punch of Keegan Thompson and Casey Mize on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Thompson has returned to form since spending last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. He allowed just one run on six hits in a complete-game victory at the Box in 2015. Mize is 6-1 this season with a 1.39 ERA and has struck out 86 in 64.2 innings of work.
“It’s going to be tough. There’s no doubt,” Robertson said. “But there’s a lot of tough pitchers in the SEC. Hopefully some of the guys we faced earlier in the year will help us prepare for Thompson, Mize and those guys.
“We’re not intimidated by that. We’ll have to go out and meet the challenge.”
BUMPS AND BRUISES
First baseman Nick Coomes and center fielder Zach Watson are expected to return to the lineup Thursday night after sitting out Tuesday, Mainieri said.
“I think they’re going to be good to go,” the coach said.
Coomes is dealing with a sore shoulder after his shoulder popped out of its socket when he made a diving stop in Sunday’s win against South Carolina. The shoulder popped back in without any serious damage and he remained in the game, but it felt sore on Monday and Tuesday.
The junior participated in practice Wednesday and felt much better, Mainieri said. He took batting practice for the first time since the injury.
Watson has been dealing with a “nagging” groin issue for months, but it was a strained calf that kept him out Tuesday, Mainieri said. If it were an SEC or postseason game, the freshman would’ve played, but the plan was to limit his practice participation Wednesday.
Beau Jordan is also dealing with some pain after crashing into two walls while playing left field Tuesday. He was eventually pulled from the loss to South Alabama when his left elbow swelled up, preventing him from gripping a bat, but he’s expected to be available Thursday, Mainieri said.
“He’s actually hurting in three different areas,” Mainieri said. “He banged his knee, he banged his hip and he banged his left elbow … As long as that swelling goes down in his elbow, he should be ok to go.”
As far as the bullpen, late-game relievers Hunter Newman and Zack Hess will be available. Mainieri held them both out Tuesday because they each pitched back-to-back days in LSU’s two wins against South Carolina.
LSU – Jr. RHP Alex Lange (5-5, 3.27 ERA, 74.1 IP, 28 BB, 91 SO)
AU – Jr. LHP Andrew Mitchell (5-2, 3.21 ERA, 28.0 IP, 12 BB, 23 SO)
LSU – Sr. LHP Jared Poche’ (8-3, 3.33 ERA, 73.0 IP, 22 BB, 49 SO)
AU – Jr. RHP Keegan Thompson (5-3, 2.08 ERA, 69.1 IP, 11 BB, 51 SO)
LSU – Fr. RHP Eric Walker (5-1, 4.09 ERA, 66.0 IP, 16 BB, 55 SO)
AU – So. RHP Casey Mize (6-1, 1.39 ERA, 64.2 IP, 8 BB, 86 SO)
Thursday, May 11 – 6:30 p.m. CT
Friday, May 12 – 7 p.m. CT
Saturday, May 13 – 12 p.m. CT
Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field in Baton Rouge, La.
LSU – No. 10 Collegiate Baseball; No. 11 USA Today; No. 15 Baseball America
AU – No. 13 Baseball America; No. 14 USA Today; No. 16 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
Thursday – ESPN2 (TV), also accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
Friday – SEC Network + (online only), accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
Saturday – SEC Network (TV), also accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
LSU leads Auburn, 99-72, in a series that began in 1907. LSU has won 11 of its last 13 and 21 of its last 29 games versus Auburn. Last season, LSU won two of three SEC regular-season games over Auburn at Plainsman Park. LSU has captured 12 of the last 18 SEC regular-season series between the clubs, dating back to 1999. LSU has four straight series wins over Auburn – AU’s last SEC series win over LSU came in 2012, when it captured two of three games at Plainsman Park. LSU coach Paul Mainieri has a 21-10 career mark against Auburn.