By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
For teams as well as players, a baseball season tend to be a collection of surges and slumps. LSU, having lost three of its past four games, finds itself going through the latter at this point of the season.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Wednesday that the team hasn’t hit enough of late, particularly in a 7-6 loss to Tulane on Tuesday night, and placed the onus on his core of veterans to get the lineup back on track.
“We’ve got to be able to know that they’re going to come out here every day and give us good at-bats,” the coach said. “Otherwise, it’s hard just to count on the young kids … The veterans have to lead the way. There’s no doubt about it.”
The struggles begin with a rare cold spell for the two normally productive seniors hitting atop the lineup.
Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman are still both hitting above .300 for the season — Freeman is the Tigers’ leading hitter at .368 — but the middle infield tandem is just 6-for-41 combined with two runs scored in LSU’s last five games.
Mainieri conceded some concern that his shortstop is pressing. Robertson is mired in a 1-for-21 slump and drawn just one walk during that span. He came to the ballpark early before practice Wednesday and spent about an hour in the batting cages working with hitting coach Micah Gibbs.
“You can put a lot of the struggles for the last few games squarely on my shoulders,” Robertson said. “I feel like if I’m playing well, then the team is playing well. If I get on base, it makes things easier for the guys behind me. So if I start playing well, we’ll start playing better as a whole.”
The true effect of LSU’s table setters struggling can be seen in the way teams have pitched around Greg Deichmann.
Tulane walked the slugger four times in five plate appearances on Tuesday night, and while the catcher didn’t stand and call for an outright intentional pass, it was crystal clear on each occasion that the Green Wave weren’t going to let Deichmann beat them.
As a result, the team’s top run producer hasn’t driven in a run in four games. That can’t continue as LSU (18-8, 4-2 SEC) hosts Texas A&M (17-9, 1-5 SEC) for a three-game series set to begin Thursday night at Alex Box Stadium.
“He’s kind of the straw that stirs the drink in our lineup,” Mainieri said. “He’s the big power threat. He’s a mature hitter who is really coming on. We’ve just got to get him some support around Greg. We’ve got to get guys on ahead of him and have guys behind him.
“If other guys hit in the clutch, they won’t think we’ve only got one hitter in our lineup who can team them.”
To Deichmann’s credit, he hasn’t expanded the zone as opposing pitchers have begun to pitch around him. It comes with the territory when someone has eight home runs and more than an RBI per game with an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.118.
He’s noted the difference and says he now goes to the plate fully aware he won’t get more than one pitch to hit in a given at-bat.
“With nobody on, they’re probably not going to give me anything to hit,” Deichmann said. “And with runners in scoring position, I’m not going to see many fastballs. I’m going to get one, maybe two pitches an at-bat that I can do something with, and those are the ones I can’t miss.”
The unintentional intentional walks to Deichmann have heaped increased pressure on the trio of freshman — Zach Watson, Josh Smith and Jake Slaughter — fill out the Nos. 5-7 slots in the lineup in one order or another.
Protection behind Deichmann has been a point of concern with Bryce Jordan was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered in preseason camp. The No. 5 spot in the order, manned by a combination of Watson and Smith, is just 2-for-17 over the past five games.
It’s not abnormal for rookies to struggle while navigating SEC play for the first time. As Mainieri noted, most blue chip prospects come to college having never dealing with much failure at the plate in their entire prep careers.
LSU does have the benefit of players who’ve been through tough times before. LSU began 2-5 in the SEC last season and would up finishing on a tear to earn a national seed anyway, so relatively speaking, the present club is in fine position at 4-2 and a game out of first place.
The message from the top down has been one of staying the course and not panicking.
“We’re not pressing, I think it’s just baseman more than anything,” Freeman said. “We just need to set the table and we need to just have good at-bats. We need to set the example, especially for the bottom part of the lineup that hasn’t really been there as much.”
Injured reliever “threw well” before practice Wednesday, Mainieri said, and the senior will be on the active roster against Texas A&M as long as he doesn’t feel any pain in his ailing back on Thursday morning.
“About as positive as it could have gone,” Mainieri said. “So we’ll see how he feels tomorrow. If he feels good and there’s no setbacks, then he’ll be on the active roster for this week.”
Provided he’s healthy Thursday, the question becomes what role Newman assumes as he returns to the bullpen. Caleb Gilbert has nailed down three saves in as many chances closing in Newman’s stead, the latest being a perfect six-out save to salvage the weekend in Gainesville.
Mainieri wasn’t ready to answer that question on Wednesday.
“I don’t know the answer to that question right now,” he said. “I don’t even know when he’ll be ready to pitch.”
As far as the active roster is concerned, Mainieri did announce that Zack Hess wouldn’t be on it. Hess threw 87 pitches over five innings of work against Tulane on Tuesday.
LSU – Jr. RHP Alex Lange (3-2, 4.09 ERA, 33.0 IP, 10 BB, 43 SO)
TAMU – Jr. RHP Brigham Hill (4-2, 3.16 ERA, 37.0 IP, 11 BB, 45 SO)
LSU – Sr. LHP Jared Poche’ (5-1, 0.90 ERA, 40.0 IP, 8 BB, 25 SO)
TAMU – So. RHP Stephen Kolek (1-1, 5.23 ERA, 31.0 IP, 9 BB, 18 SO)
LSU – Fr. RHP Eric Walker (3-0, 3.69 ERA, 31.2 IP, 9 BB, 36 SO)
TAMU – Jr. RHP Corbin Martin (2-2, 4.07 ERA, 24.1 IP, 14 BB, 38 SO)
Thursday, March 30 – 6 p.m. CT
Friday, March 31 – 8 p.m. CT
Saturday, April 1 – 2:30 p.m. CT
Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field in Baton Rouge, La. (10,326)
LSU – No. 6 D1 Baseball; No. 8 USA Today; No. 9 Baseball America; No. 13 Collegiate Baseball
TAMU – unranked
LSU Sports Radio Network; in Baton Rouge on WDGL 98.1 FM
Radio broadcast and live stats for all LSU baseball games are available at www.LSUsports.net
Thursday – SEC Network
Friday – ESPNU
Saturday – ESPN2
WatchESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app
Texas A&M leads the series, 20-19-1, and the first meeting between the teams occurred in 1907 in Baton Rouge (a 3-2 LSU win). LSU has won 13 of the last 19 meetings with Texas A&M, though the Aggies posted a 2-1 series victory last season in College Station. The teams have split their 12 meetings, 6-6, since Texas A&M began playing baseball in the SEC in 2013.
The teams’ first meeting in which Texas A&M played as a member of the SEC occurred in 2013, when LSU won two of three games in College Station. The Tigers also played in College Station in 2014, when the Aggies posted a 2-1 series victory, so LSU is 4-5 in the Aggies’ home ball park since Texas A&M joined the SEC. In the only prior meeting in Baton Rouge since the Aggies joined the SEC, LSU in 2015 won two of three games over Texas A&M..
Prior to 2013, the most recent meeting between the teams came in the 2004 NCAA Super Regional in Baton Rouge, as LSU swept two games to advance to the College World Series. One of LSU’s most famous matchups with Texas A&M came 28 years ago in May, 1989, when the Tigers defeated the top-ranked Aggies twice on the final day of the NCAA Central Regional to advance to the College World Series.
PM and Gibbs are slumping too.