LSU Alabama Baseball

LSU's Josh Smith (4) and Nick Coomes (13) greet Greg Deichmann (7) after his two-run hit in the first inning against Alabama, Saturday, April 29, 2017, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP) ORG XMIT: ALBIN403

Vasha Hunt

This is shaping up to be massively fun.

Sign me up for scoreboard watching. Let me feel the electric importance of a go-ahead home run in the late innings. Give me the increased intensity of every pitch that comes with meaningful baseball in the stretch run.

This is the sport at its best: With three weeks remaining in the regular season, LSU is one of five teams within a game of the Southeastern Conference Western Division lead. Two teams in the East also fit this category, meaning exactly half the league is within a game of the top.

With regard to the Tigers, the remaining schedule only adds to the intrigue. The two teams ahead of LSU in the SEC West race — Auburn and Mississippi State — are the last two teams on the Tigers’ schedule.

LSU put itself in position to effectively control its fate by doing what it needed to do in Tuscaloosa, going on the road and sweeping a scuffling team.

This wasn’t a given. Alabama, for all its struggles, has shown some pluck lately.

The weekend before the Tigers came to town, the Tide gave Mississippi State all it could handle in Starkville, losing three games by a total of three runs. Alabama gave LSU some trouble too, the Tigers having to go to their closer in the last two games to nail down tight wins.

That being said, for LSU to have its best chance at staying in the pack and achieving the goals the program always has — an SEC championship and NCAA tournament games at Alex Box Stadium — it needed to get out of Alabama with three wins in its pocket.

That’s called taking care of business. LSU went into Tuscaloosa with a clearly better team, and it managed to make the disparity in ability matter in each of the games. With the thinnest of margins separating the top of the league, it was imperative for LSU not to stumble.

But, before the series started, it also presented a challenge for LSU coach Paul Mainieri.

He was asked Tuesday after the loss to Tulane about the importance of sweeping Alabama. He looked like he would rather ingest poison than count on wins before the team stepped on the field.

The last thing he wanted was for his players to approach the series the way those on the outside were thinking about it.

“You’re facing a team whose record is not stellar, and before you start the series everybody says, ‘Oh, you’ve got to sweep these guys,’” Mainieri said after Friday’s game. “But you see how hard it is? Each game is so hard. If you go into a series saying, ‘We’ve got to sweep these guys,’ I promise you you’re not going to (sweep).”

LSU had the right mindset for the entire series. It did not stumble. The players didn’t crack when the Alabama team they were supposed to beat tested them.

Now it’s time for a different type of test. It has felt as if every time LSU has taken a step forward this season, it has followed with a step back. With just three weekends to go in the regular season, there is not enough time for LSU to recover from another slip into reverse.

The Tigers are right there in the mix with everyone else, and to a man, the members of the team will tell you they still haven’t played their best baseball.

They have a golden opportunity in front of them in these last three weeks, when every game has the promise to feel momentous. That promise will only be fulfilled if LSU continues taking care of business like it did against Alabama.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.