After three weeks of steady shuffling, the fact that there’s no news on LSU’s weekend rotation is in itself newsworthy.
LSU will stick with a rotation of Zack Hess, Cole Henry and Eric Walker as its hosts Kentucky for the inaugural weekend of Southeastern Conference play.
These 30 games are what makes or breaks a season, as LSU coach Paul Mainieri likes to say. LSU (12-5) knows it isn’t close to being a finished product at this point — that pitching staff in particular — but SEC play starts Friday night at Alex Box Stadium nonetheless.
“Our pitching staff as a whole has taken some steps forward in recent days,” Hess said. “Obviously we know that we’re not there yet. There’s still work to be done. We’re still having that one inning where things get out of hand, but we’re moving in the right direction. We just have to continue to build.”
The pressure falls squarely on Hess to get LSU off to a good start in a matchup with Kentucky ace and Team USA teammate Zack Thompson.
Hess is coming off his best start of the season, but he still has yet to complete six innings through his first four starts. LSU continues to count on more length out of its junior right-hander as neither Henry nor Walker are 100 percent coming into the weekend.
“We need Zack to pitch his best game of the year for us because the kid we’re going up against is really good,” Mainieri said. “We’re not going to score a lot of runs against an arm like that. Nobody does. You have to assume Friday night is going to be a low-scoring game, so the pressure is on.”
Henry was sensational in his start last Saturday, limiting Cal to two hits over four shutout innings, but he left the game due to backs stiffness. Two days off did “wonders” for Henry, according to Mainieri, and he looked strong in a light bullpen session Thursday to prove he’s healthy enough to start.
LSU is sticking with Walker on Sunday as he continues to build back arm strength post Tommy John surgery, but he’s not expected to go deep into the game. Freshman Landon Marceaux will play a “key role” provided he feels up to it after pitching three innings on Tuesday night.
“Landon could easily be starting the game, but we just felt it was the right thing to go with Walker in the beginning,” Mainieri said. “We don’t expect Walker to go seven or eight innings. Hopefully Landon will be ready to piggyback.”
This isn’t the homer-hitting Kentucky lineup that LSU has faced in recent years. The Wildcats have seemingly reinvented themselves as a speed, pitching and defense team since moving into a bigger home ballpark.
Kentucky comes into the series having stolen 46 bases in 55 attempts. For comparison sake, LSU has stolen 17 in 20 attempts.
The more concerning metric for LSU is the alarming rate at which they’re allowing opponents to steal bases against them. Opponents come into the weekend having stolen 32 bases in 33 attempts, an alarming success rate of 96.9 percent.
LSU met Thursday morning about how best to combat Kentucky’s prolific running game, and improvements are needed from all parties involved.
Coaches need to call more pitchouts and throws over to keep the runners close. Pitches must be quicker to the plate so to give Brock Mathis a chance. And when Mathis does have a chance, he needs to make better throw.
“They’re going to run,” Mainieri said. “They’ve got six-or-seven guys in their lineup that they’re going to run with, and we need to figure out a way to stop that running game. The best way is to keep them from getting on base, but that’s not going to happen every time.”
“That’s something we have to harp on and get better at,” Hess said. “The big thing is guys getting comfortable being a little bit quicker to the plate.”
With that in mind, walks can prove as deadly as ever for LSU. Any free pass can turn into a double and an easy run with the way Kentucky steals bases.
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