Tigers enter series having won nine games in a row
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Riley Smith enters the final weekend of a regular season repeatedly stalled by shoulder soreness having logged a grand total of two innings against Southeastern Conference foes.
Now he’ll get the ball with the nation’s top-ranked team coming to Alex Box Stadium for the middle game of a pivotal series with NCAA seeding implications very much hanging in the balance — it’d be the opener if Alex Lange wasn’t such a skilled politician.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri unveiled his revamped rotation ahead of hosting No. 1 Florida in a three-game series slated to begin Thursday night. Mainieri originally planned to pitch Smith Thursday followed by Lange and Jared Poche’, but changed his mind around Noon Wednesday and flip-flopped the first two amid constant ‘politicking’ from his ace and the threat of heavy rain in Friday night’s forecast.
“I think I’ve got a career in politics,” Lange joked. But when asked why he fought so hard to start a day earlier, Lange responded bluntly “because I’m ready to go. I want the ball. That’s just how I am.”
The right-hander threw 121 pitches over eight innings in a victory at Tennessee last Friday, hence why Mainieri and Alan Dunn were hesitant to bring him back on one day’s short rest.
But, with weather looming, Mainieri worried about a Friday rain out pushing Lange to Saturday and limiting his SEC Tournament availability.
“He’s got such a great attitude that he’ll do whatever you tell him, but I think he really wanted to pitch on Thursday,” Mainieri said. “He’s been feeling great. I’ve been asking him all week, and he says ‘Coach, I’ve never felt better.’ We just wanted to give him the extra day. Then I saw the forecast.”
That leaves the Friday night stage to Smith, the junior college transfer who’s been limited to just 14.2 innings of mound times this season. However, over the past two outings since returning from his second bout with shoulder soreness, he’s worked eight consecutive scoreless innings.
“That’s what we’ve been waiting for, and finally he’s healthy,” Mainieri said. “He went out on the mound and looked to be in total control. His stuff is good. This is the guy we recruited and the guy we’ve been waiting for all year. It’s time to put him out there.”
Smith’s emergence began with firing two innings of scoreless relief as LSU dug its way out of a 9-1 hole in the since-dubbed ‘Possum game.’ He then started against Notre Dame and twirled six innings of four-hit ball to earn the victory. He didn’t issue a walk and threw just 65 pitches.
There’s also a school of thought that Smith, a four-pitch pitcher who has worked so little in SEC play, will be more difficult for the Gators to gather tape on for a scouting report.
“If the scouting report made guys hit better, than everybody would hit over .600,” Smith said dryly. “Hitting is probably the one of the hardest things in baseball to do, but I think it does help. Not a whole lot on me because I haven’t pitched a lot. But we’ve still got to win three games no matter what.”
Meanwhile, it’ll be the LSU lineup that does battle with what Mainieri characterized as possibly being “the deepest and most talented pitching staff in the last decade in college baseball.” From talking to people, he estimated the Gators could have as many as seven future first-round arms at their disposal.
That includes all three of Florida’s weekend starters, whether it be possible SEC Pitcher of the Year Logan Shore (10-0, 2.29 ERA) on Thursday, hard-throwing lefty A.J. Puk (2-3, 2.88 ERA) on Friday, or right-hander Alex Faedo (10-1, 3.95 ERA) in the series finale.
What makes the matchup fascinating is that LSU has done some of its best offensive work against some of the league’s other highly-touted flamethrowers, including hanging six-or-more runs on Vanderbilt’s Jordan Sheffield, Missouri’s Tanner Houck and Mississippi State’s Dakota Hudson.
“When you’re facing these million-dollar arms, you want to hit early in the count,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “You don’t want to get too deep because they have so many good pitches to put you away with.
“We’re not going to be intimidated by anybody. We realize that they’re a good team and it’s Florida, but we’re LSU and we’re playing at the Box. So I’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys.”
– Mainieri said Jake Latz, who worked a 1-2-3 inning in his first career relief appearance on Tuesday night, will be active for the weekend so long as he feels good physically. He hadn’t talked to the left-hander as of press time.
– Peter Alonso, Florida’s leading hitter in terms of average (.352), home runs (9) and RBI (47), won’t play this weekend after getting hit by a pitch last week. Mainieri described the slugger as “a dude” who could flat out hit, but added the Florida lineup remains plenty formidable without him.
– Lange said he and Shore, Thursday night’s probably starters, have become friends and even exchanged some text messages (about the rain and other things) earlier this week.