Justly praised but hardly perfect, LSU’s baseball team sails into the final week of the regular season still a unanimous No. 1 but numbering a growing list of concerns.
Second base is now a liability with the academic ineligibility of Jared Foster. Monday, LSU coach Paul Mainieri basically said he is placing a “help wanted” ad for the closer’s role after Jesse Stallings blew yet another save.
And the Game 3 Southeastern Conference weekend starter’s role? After they finished replacing the foul poles knocked down by foul weather two weeks ago, LSU’s grounds crew should have installed a revolving door on the pitcher’s mound for the Tigers who have taken their shots at the job.
And yet …
“The best thing about us is we find ways to win,” said Alex Bregman, LSU’s star shortstop. “We’ve had to overcome a lot over the course of this season. We’ve had to play multiple extra-inning games — it seems like we play one every week.
“We’ve found ways to win and be in the top spot in the country and in the SEC and the SEC West. If we continue to win every pitch, we’ll be successful.”
Baseball is chock full of truths, like the laws of physics. Three strikes. Three outs. Nine men on a side. Nine innings.
Another truth is no team has everything. Every team has holes, and there will be times when the ball finds those holes, burrows into them. Every team loses sometimes.
“There are no perfect teams,” said Mainieri, whose team is 43-8 and 19-7 in the SEC. “I’ve done this for 33 years and had some pretty good teams, including one that won a national championship (in 2009). That team lost 17 games that year. We were still jockeying with the lineup 40 games into the season. Our third starter, Austin Ross, was 6-7 that year. Matty Ott didn’t become our closer until (after) a good portion of our season.”
If there are implements with which to beat these Tigers up, the flip side is the old adage, “You shoulda seen the other guy.” Despite some glaring pitching problems in Friday and Sunday’s games, LSU still has won 20 of its past 23, capped by last weekend’s sweep of Missouri, putting a bear hug on the top of the SEC standings and a top-eight national seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. Maybe even the No. 1 overall seed, something the Tigers, for all their glittering diamond achievements, have never been since the NCAA started seeding teams 1-8 in 1999.
“Our Friday night starter (Jared Poche) didn’t make it through the fourth inning, our Sunday starter didn’t make it through the first inning, and our closer blew a save,” Mainieri said. “But somehow we swept the series. And if you look at the statistics, we’re the only team in the conference with a sub-3.00 ERA. There are other strengths of the team, and they make up for it.”
Hitting, for one. LSU leads the SEC in batting (.320), hits (607), doubles (114), total bases (889), steals (96) and is last in strikeouts (265) by a wide margin. Bregman, a junior, said this is a better offensive team than the one he was on two years ago that slugged its way to 57 wins and the College World Series.
Defense, for another. LSU’s .977 fielding percentage ranks fourth in the SEC. But in the purely subjective realm of opinion, there can’t be a team with a faster trio of outfielders and a better shortstop.
“We have a good offensive team, we have a good defensive team, and all of our pitchers have pitched well at times,” Mainieri said. “You dwell on the things you can do positively. You’re constantly working to hide the limitations you have, and somebody always seems to rise to the occasion. Good teams always find a way to get it done.”
With at least six games left until the NCAA tournament — Tuesday night’s game at UNO, three starting Thursday at South Carolina, and at least two in next week’s SEC tournament — it’s unlikely the Tigers are going to stop finding a way now. Even if they suddenly slipped on their own ice, LSU would still probably be a top eight NCAA seed.
“We’ve had a phenomenal season,” Mainieri said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done.
“But that’s yesterday. All we can do is think of the next challenge ahead of us, and that’s UNO.”
More and more, the Tigers’ biggest challenge appears to be themselves.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.