The clock struck midnight shortly after LSU made it back from New Orleans on Tuesday night. Sometime after Antoine Duplantis sat in Paul Mainieri’s office with tears welling up in his eyes.
Hours earlier Duplantis had grounded out softly to first base with the tying runs in scoring position to end a frustrating 3-1 loss to UL-Lafayette in the Wally Pontiff Jr. Classic.
The topic of discussion wasn’t so much the result — baseball is a game of failure after all, especially when it comes to hitting — but that Duplantis had gotten away from what makes him a prolific hitter in a moment when the game was on the line.
“We talked about those key at-bats that I’ve had success with in my past and getting back to what I was trying to do in those moments,” Duplantis said. “Just try to carry those over to my future at-bats. I was pretty upset. I’ve had some key at-bats that haven’t gone the way I want to. It’s not really the result I’ve been upset with, it’s the way I’ve approached those at-bats.”
His most recent at-bat was still fresh in his mind the next afternoon.
Duplantis was sitting on a changeup from Cajun closer Logan Stoelke with first base open. He took back-to-back changeups to get ahead in the count, but then he went hunting a 2-0 fastball and got caught out in front of a third straight changeup, meekly pulling it to end the game.
“He has to have a better approach in that situation right there, and he knows it,” Mainieri said. “I had him in my office at 12:30 in the morning and we were talking about it. The kid was in tears because he felt he let his team down.
“I said ‘Antoine, you never have to feel like you let your team down. You epitomize what a baseball player at LSU should be, but what you need to do is have a better approach in that situation and know what pitchers are trying to do to you because your reputation proceeds itself.”
That at-bat is a microcosm for what Mainieri believes is holding his team back up to this point of the season. Even Duplantis, the most accomplished hitter on a young, injury-riddled team, has struggled to translate gameplan into action at the plate in the game’s most critical moments.
Duplantis is just about the only marquee position player on LSU’s roster that hasn’t gone done with an injury at some point this season, but the Tigers are still fourth in the Southeastern Conference in hitting with a team batting average of .299.
However, as Mainieri noted, all those hits only add up to LSU being No. 11 in the league in runs scored. Those failures to get hits in big spots are underscored by the fact that six of LSU’s past seven losses have come by two runs or fewer.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Mainieri said. “The thing we’ve always prided ourselves on at LSU has been the toughest team, the most hard-nosed team, the team that hits in the clutch the most. This type of numbers illustrates the opposite of that. We get the hits when it doesn’t matter.”
The coach is still searching for the answer to reversing that trend at the moment, but he believes its more a matter of maturity and sticking to preparation than a lack of intensity or a fear of the big spot.
For instance, LSU’s scouting report on UL-Lafayette lefty Austin Perrin was that he threw more changeups than fastballs, but hitter after hitter got themselves out swinging for the fences as the soft-tossing lefty navigated his way through 3.1 innings of shutout relief to protect a two-run lead.
“Your season is defined by the one- and two-run games, and that’s really hitting us right now,” outfielder Beau Jordan said. “We’ve just got to be better.”
“You can’t go up there expecting something or hoping for a pitch you’re not going to get,” Duplantis added. “You shouldn’t go up there trying to pull inside fastballs for homers if all you’re going to get is changeups away.”
LSU (16-10, 3-3 SEC) won’t have to wait long before getting a chance to make those corrections. The Tigers host arch rival Mississippi State (13-13, 1-5 SEC) for a three-game series set to get underway at Alex Box Stadium on Wednesday night.
The degree of difficulty won’t be any easier this weekend as LSU prepares to face two of the toughest lefties in the SEC, Konnor Pilkington and Ethan Small. The duo may have a combined record of 2-5, but they’ve pitched to a cumulative 2.26 ERA in 67.2 innings with 94 strikeouts.