You know how you can tell Southeastern Conference play has arrived? LSU took batting practice Thursday with the pitching machine cranked up just about as high as it goes.
The high-velocity humming of baseballs before practice even begins is as good a clue as any that it’s time to begin the all-important 30-game grind.
“See that pitching machine out there? Take a look at the velocity on that thing,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri laughed. “When we first cranked it up, it was set at 99 to 103 miles per hour. We decided to back off that a little bit, but not much.”
Not much is right.
LSU spent Thursday gearing up to face Missouri ace Bryce Montes De Oca (3-0, 1.57 ERA), the first of several flame-throwers the Tigers will have to contend with on Friday nights in the weeks to come. Take a look at any top prospect list for the 2018 MLB Draft and you’ll see it’s littered with SEC power arms.
But Montes De Oca brings the heat even by SEC standards. Reports had him touching 100 mph in his most recent start and he’s already thrown a no-hitter this season.
“He’s special,” Mainieri said. “He’s a big, strong guy that throws really hard.”
The potential has always been there for the 6-foot-7, 260-pound junior, but he’s enjoying a breakout season after overcoming Tommy John surgery and command trouble earlier in his college career.
Montes De Oca struck out 31 in 23 innings this season compared to 11 walks. Opponents are hitting an anemic .120 against him up to this point.
“Saw him in the Cape (Cod League) after my sophomore year,” outfielder Beau Jordan said. “His velocity was like 96-96 mph and he’s a big dude. You can see him stretch and he’s like two feet taller than everybody else. Definitely a big presence on the mound.”
LSU of course will counter with its own hard-throwing ace in Zack Hess (2-2, 5.64 ERA), a highly-regarded prospect in his own right.
Despite the bloated ERA, Hess has been excellent of late. He’s allowed six earned runs on 16 hits in 20 innings over the course of his last three starts while striking out 32 and walking three. That equates to an ERA of 2.70 after allowing eight runs and issuing six walks in his season debut.
“After that weekend, we all came together and talked about how we couldn’t continue to pitch the way we’re pitching and expect to win,” Hess said. “The whole pitching staff knows we’re the engine that drives the train. This team can only go as far as how well we pitch the ball.
“A lot of guys took it upon themselves to take a hard look in the mirror and say ‘You know what, we’re not going to let this season go to waste because we can’t throw the ball over the plate.’ A lot of guys have stepped up since then.”
Any talk of moving Hess back to the bullpen dissipated weeks ago, but Mainieri will ask him to re-discover his closer’s approach on Friday night.
Why? Missouri has scored in the first inning of eight straight games, one better than LSU’s active streak of seven.
LSU – So. RHP Zack Hess (2-2, 5.64 ERA, 22.1 IP, 9 BB, 34 SO)
MU – Jr. RHP Bryce Montes De Oca (3-0, 1.57 ERA, 23.0 IP, 11 BB, 31 SO)
LSU – Jr. RHP Caleb Gilbert (2-0, 4.29 ERA, 21.0 IP, 5 BB, 11 SO)
MU – Jr. LHP Michael Plassmeyer (2-0, 2.88 ERA, 25.0 IP, 3 BB, 35 SO)
LSU – Fr. RHP Ma’Khail Hilliard (4-0, 0.00 ERA, 17.1 IP, 7 BB, 14 SO)
MU – Sr. RHP Andy Toelken (2-1, 3.92 ERA, 20.2 IP, 3 BB, 16 SO)
Friday, March 16 – 6:30 p.m. CT
Saturday, March 17 – 6 p.m. CT
Sunday, March 18 – 2 p.m. CT
Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field in Baton Rouge, La. (10,326)
LSU – No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball; No. 17 by Baseball America
Missouri – No. 24 by Collegiate Baseball
LSU Sports Radio Network affiliates, including WDGL 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge
Live audio at www.LSUsports.net/live
Live stats at www.LSUstats.com
Saturday’s game will be televised on the SEC Network
All three games may be viewed on SEC Network+, accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
LSU has an all-time record of 12-0 versus Missouri in a series that began in 1986. Since MU joined the SEC beginning with the 2013 season, LSU owns a 10- mark in the series, including three-game sweeps at Columbia in 2013 and 2016, a three-game sweep in Baton Rouge in 2015, and a 10-3 SEC Tournament victory last season in Hoover, Ala. LSU is 5-0 against Missouri in games played in Baton Rouge.
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