With three weeks left to go in the regular season, LSU finds itself in a position it hasn’t been in since 2011: the bubble.
LSU (26-19, 10-11 Southeastern Conference) begins a pivotal eight-game homestand with a series against SEC West-leading Arkansas (32-13, 13-8 SEC) at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night.
Losing six of the previous eight has left the Tigers in the precarious position of needing wins to secure their place in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. LSU coach Paul Mainieri has been up front with his team that they’re playing for their postseason lives from here on out.
“I’ve talked at length about it,” Mainieri said. “I post the standings every day. I tell them what the RPI is every day. They need to understand how everything they do factors in. They know. Now whether they believe me or not, here we are and this is the situation we’re in.
“I don’t keep anything from them. I’m very transparent with my players.”
Presently sitting at No. 53 in the RPI and tied for fourth in the SEC West, LSU has a chance to make up ground in both against an Arkansas club that’s No. 5 in RPI and headed toward a national seed.
Arkansas, like Ole Miss last week, is both loaded with talent and a well-rounded club. The Hogs lead the league in batting average (.310) and home runs (69) while ranking third in staff ERA (3.46). Right-hander Blaine Knight (7-0, 2.45 ERA) and lefty Kacey Murphy (5-3, 2.54 ERA) make for quite the one-two punch.
“I can size them up easily: they look like a team with no weaknesses,” Mainieri said. “They’ve got the best hitting team in the league. Their Friday night starter is going to be a first-round draft choice and their No. 2 starter is pitching great. They’ve got a lot of veterans who’ve been around there. It’s going to be the biggest challenge of the year for us.”
Some perspective on just how squarely on the bubble LSU sits: D1Baseball and Baseball America list the Tigers among their first teams out of the field in the latest regional projection, but a sweep of Arkansas could vault the Tigers into a tie atop a loaded division.
Every season is different, but a core of veterans accustomed to May charges are banking on the shared experience of finishing strong. LSU won 11 games in a row down the stretch in 2016 and won its final seven regular season games a year ago before sweeping its way into Omaha.
“It’s like LSU tradition to finish out the last few series strong,” veteran infielder Bryce Jordan said. “We’re looking forward to playing Arkansas. Just taking it one game at a time. Not looking ahead of who we have to play later or how many games we have to win. If you start pressing, everything is going to spiral out of control. It’ll make your head hurt. Just one game at a time.”
– The back specialist found no structural damage when examining Josh Smith earlier this week and he’s feeling better, but Mainieri doesn’t expect him to be available for the Arkansas series. “Unless something changes in the next 24 hours, he’s out for the weekend,” the coach said. Barring an unforeseen change in Smith’s status, Jake Slaughter will play third base this weekend.
– Freshman right-hander Nick Storz is scheduled to pitch a simulated game on Saturday afternoon. If all goes well, Mainieri said he should be able to return to action in the next midweek game.
– Arkansas may be without two key contributors this weekend. Closer Matt Cronin is dealing with an illness and second baseman Carson Shaddy has a hand injury, according to a report from HawgBeat.com.
LSU – So. RH Zack Hess (6-4, 3.92 ERA, 64.1 IP, 31 BB, 77 SO)
UA – Jr. RH Blaine Knight (7-0, 2.45 ERA, 62.1 IP, 15 BB, 63 SO)
LSU – Fr. RH Ma’Khail Hilliard (8-3, 2.89 ERA, 56.0 IP, 19 BB, 54 SO)
UA – Jr. LH Kacey Murphy (5-3, 2.54 ERA, 56.2 IP, 8 BB, 53 SO)
LSU – TBA
UA – TBA
Friday, May 4 – 7 p.m. CT
Saturday, May 5 – 7 p.m. CT
Sunday, May 6 – 2 p.m. CT
Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field (10,326)
LSU – unranked
Arkansas – No. 4 Baseball America, No. 4 USA Today, No. 5 D1 Baseball
LSU Sports Radio Network affiliates, including WDGL 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge
Saturday – SEC Network
All three games may be viewed at SEC Network + – accessible at WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
LSU leads the all-time series with Arkansas, 70-31, and the Tigers have won 12 of their last 13 SEC regular-season series – including the past six in a row — versus the Razorbacks, including a 2-1 series victory last season in Baton Rouge. LSU also defeated Arkansas, 4-2, in last season’s SEC Tournament championship game in Hoover, Ala. The only regular-season series win for Arkansas over LSU in the past 13 seasons came in 2011, when the Razorbacks swept three games from the Tigers in Fayetteville. The Tigers are 34-13 against Arkansas over the past 13 seasons, including two wins over the Razorbacks in the 2009 College World Series.