LSU at Alabama Baseball

LSU infielder Cole Freeman (8) throws to first after tagging second base for an out during game one of a three-game series against Alabama at Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa Thursday, April 27, 2017. [Staff Photo/Erin Nelson]

Erin Nelson

The only other time Paul Mainieri can recall being in a similar situation to this season was in a year when his LSU baseball team didn't qualify for the NCAA tournament.

In fact, in 2011, the Tigers weren't battling with the rest of the Southeastern Conference for the league title with three weekends to go, like is the case today. There was only one weekend left, and LSU was just trying to earn a bid to the SEC tournament.

Back then, only eight of the 12 teams qualified for the conference tournament. The Tigers had dug themselves such a hole in the first half of league play that even a 9-3 finish in SEC games didn't do enough to secure a trip to Hoover, Alabama.

But LSU actually had a small chance to win the division in the final weekend of the 2011 season, which would have required a road sweep of Mississippi State and significant help around the league. Four SEC West teams were tied for first entering the weekend, while LSU was in last place but only two games back of the division lead. 

Instead, despite pummeling the Bulldogs 17-1 in the first game of the series, the Tigers suffered a crushing 6-5 loss in the final inning of Game 2. 

Fortunately for Mainieri and the Tigers, No. 15 LSU (30-15, 13-8) is in no danger of missing the 2017 NCAA tournament, nor the SEC tournament in four weeks. But there are seven league members, including the Tigers, that are either tied for first or one game back of the overall conference lead. 

"This season reminds me a little bit of how tight it was (in 2011), but not league-wide," Mainieri said. "That was just in the Western Division. Now we have seven teams separated by one game with three weeks to play. It's crazy." 

LSU, one of the four teams that is a game back of first place, plays two of three teams teams tied for first place in the coming weeks — Auburn and Mississippi State. Before those two series, the Tigers will host a sputtering South Carolina team that's missing its best pitcher, Clarke Schmidt. 

Of the seven SEC teams vying for the regular-season crown that LSU is already played, the Tigers are 5-7 against those four teams, including series losses against Florida, Texas A&M and Kentucky. 

Despite LSU's struggles during conference play, Mainieri is not surprised the SEC title race involves this many teams. 

"I've been saying this to you all, all year," Mainieri said. "Everybody seems about the same. Some teams have maybe one strength a little bit better than another team. But everybody has their limitations, their areas of concern and everybody has their strengths."

Pros and cons

After playing seven straight games away from home, Mainieri said final exams are coming at a good time for his players. The Tigers will not play a midweek game this week before starting the series against the Gamecocks on Friday at 7 p.m.

However, with players' exams spread out throughout the week, the entire team will not be together until Friday. It forces Mainieri and his coaching staff to plan individual practice times for each player. 

Mainieri said players will practice in groups of 4-5, but most of the team will be together Thursday. 

"It's always a challenging week to get the team into the right mindset because you don't have them together all week," Mainieri said. "At the same time, they get a little bit of a break from baseball, which allows their bodies to heal, rest themselves mentally a little bit with the game, focus on their final exams."

Tigers rise in polls

A road series sweep of Alabama has bumped LSU up in three of the four major polls released Monday.

The Tigers moved up three spots each in the Perfect Game (No. 12) and the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper (No. 11) polls. LSU also climbed one spot to No. 12 in the ranking. The Tigers remained at No. 15 in Baseball America's top 25.