During the first four weeks of this season, the LSU baseball team has come a long way.
The second-ranked Tigers are 16-1 after winning their last 11 games. They have settled on a weekend pitching rotation, and all three starters — Aaron Nola, Ryan Eades and Cody Glenn — have been very effective.
They’ve settled into a batting order, and newcomers Mark Laird, Alex Bregman and Christian Ibarra have become key contributors — offensively and defensively.
But now, it’s a whole new ballgame as LSU begins defense of its Southeastern Conference championship when it plays a weekend series against No. 11 Mississippi State beginning Friday night in Starkville, Miss.
This begins a 30-game conference grind in which half of the games are against teams currently ranked nationally.
“I’m very proud of our team that we’re 16-1,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We did what we had to do in these first 17. No one can ever take that away from us. It’s in our résumé, and the NCAA at the end of the season will look at it.
“The reality is you have to do the job in nonconference play to put yourself in good position, but if you don’t do the job in the SEC, then it’s all for naught.”
Mainieri said the Tigers have answered most of his preseason questions in a positive way.
“I feel as good as I can possibly feel about our team,” he said. “I think we’re well-prepared. I think we have the pieces in place to give ourselves a chance to win every day in the SEC. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win. We have to go out and play well on those days.”
Mainieri said his biggest concern after last season was replacing the two fixtures on the left side of the infield — shortstop Austin Nola and third baseman Tyler Hanover. He’s no longer concerned.
“I think if you’ve watched these games you have to feel pretty good about these two guys we’ve got on the left side of the infield,” Mainieri said.
Bregman has committed just two errors at shortstop and he’s batting .391 in the No. 3 spot.
Ibarra has committed five errors at third, but he’s also made several difficult plays. He’s hitting .358, and Mainieri moved him from the No. 9 spot to the No. 6 spot last weekend.
Another concern Mainieri had was replacing Friday night starter Kevin Gausman. Though he knew Aaron Nola and Eades were both very capable, Gausman was the first pitcher taken in the pro draft last summer.
“I’m not saying Nola (2-0, 2.77 ERA) and Eades (3-0, 1.80) are the equal of Gausman, but they’re pretty good,” Mainieri said. “I think any team in the country would like to have those guys as two of their starting pitchers.”
Mainieri settled on Glenn (3-0, 0.73) as his Sunday starter last week.
Despite the early-season success, there are areas where LSU must improve if it’s going to compete for the SEC title. Mainieri cited the hitting of second baseman JaCoby Jones (.235) and catcher Ty Ross (.213) plus depth in the bullpen.
“I wish JaCoby and Ty Ross had a lot more hits,” Mainieri said, “but they’ve hit some balls hard.”
Closer Chris Cotton (1-0) is 5-for-5 in save opportunities, and his ERA is 0.84. Joey Bourgeois (1-0, 3.12) and Nick Rumbelow (1-0, 4.26) are the top setup relievers.
The losses of Kurt McCune, who hasn’t pitched because of two hairline fractures of vertebrae in his back, and Joe Broussard, who was lost for the season when he had Tommy John surgery in the fall, have taken two key veterans out of the bullpen, though McCune might return later this month.
“The biggest concern I have is our bullpen,” Mainieri said. “You can’t win in this league if you can’t shut them down in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning. But sometimes you’re going to have to go to your pen in the sixth inning too. We still need somebody to emerge. We need probably two more guys.”
Mainieri said the Tigers need left-hander Brent Bonvillain, who lost the Sunday job to Glenn, “to step up and come to grips with not being a starting pitcher and do the job out of bullpen.”
This weekend will be by far the biggest test LSU has faced. The Bulldogs (18-2) are the first ranked team they have faced and the Tigers have played just one game away from Alex Box Stadium — an 11-2 victory at Louisiana-Lafayette on Feb. 26.
“This is a top SEC team,” first baseman Mason Katz said. “This is a team that could finish first in the SEC. It’s going to be big for us to go in there and take this test and see where we are, but we’re ready.”
Aaron Nola learned first hand as a freshman last season how big a jump it is from pre-conference play to SEC, thanks to State. Nola had sailed through pre-conference play, earning the Sunday starter’s role, but got hit around by the Bulldogs for five first-inning runs.
He settled down and lasted six innings, but State went on to win 7-1 to avoid a sweep. That was the only game among five between the Tigers and Bulldogs last season that was decided by more than one run.
State beat LSU twice in Hoover, Ala., on its way to the SEC tournament title.
“You can’t take any pitches off, you can’t take any games off in the SEC because every team is good,” Nola said. “Once you set foot in the SEC every game is close, every pitcher that steps on the mound is good, every hitter is good.”