‘We can take a breath’: LSU softball team faces its first unranked weekend opponent in six weeks _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU head coach Beth Torina speaks to players in the dugout as the Lady Tigers play Florida, Saturday, March 26, 2016, at LSU's Tiger Park in Baton Rouge, La.

Beth Torina has never shied away from mentioning the rigors of Southeastern Conference softball.

The league sent five teams to the 2015 Women’s College World Series and has produced three of the past four national champions. But the first five weeks of LSU’s SEC schedule featured five top-16 teams — a particularly grueling stretch Torina pegged as a cause for her team’s recent hitting woes.

Much to the Tigers’ relief, the toughest part of their schedule is behind them.

No. 11 LSU will close conference play with three of the league’s bottom four teams, starting with a three-game series at Mississippi State beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Torina said she’s relieved to be free of a ranked opponent this weekend but didn’t downplay the challenge of an SEC road series.

“They have a lot of energy and play with a lot of emotion. We still have a really tough opponent ahead of us,” the coach said following the Tigers’ 9-1 win at Southeastern on Wednesday night.

“But looking at the rest of our schedule, I think we can take a little bit of a breath and kind of start a new phase of the schedule as we go into the last four weeks.”

The midweek victory gave LSU (32-10, 5-10) renewed confidence in an offense that stranded 25 runners in 21 scoreless innings against No. 14 Kentucky last weekend. After the Tigers averaged only 1.8 runs over 10 games, Torina called Wednesday night’s result “something that we really needed.”

“(It) was kind of a confidence-booster, realizing we have the confidence and are able to do it,” senior first baseman Sandra Simmons said Wednesday. “Not that the mental side went down, but just reassuring ourselves that our mental side is there.”

Now LSU has to test its newfound momentum against another talented SEC pitching staff.

Though the Bulldogs (22-18, 2-10) lack a true ace, they possess a deep and diverse array of six pitchers. Four of them have a sub-3.00 ERA, resulting in a team ERA of 2.33.

Torina said Mississippi State frequently pitches by committee, forcing opposing teams to make in-game adjustments.

“They have some good arms, but they run them in and out of the game a good bit. So you don’t really know what you’re going to get,” she said. “They have lefties, righties, riseball, dropball, a little bit of everything. They have a deep staff and they use them all.”

The Bulldogs’ offense, on the other hand, is at the bottom of the SEC in several categories: batting average (.256), runs (158), hits (265), home runs (12) and RBIs (138).

This weekend’s series appears to be a favorable matchup for the Tigers’ pitching staff, which limited Kentucky to only six runs on nine hits last weekend. Torina has leaned heavily on sophomore righties Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper in SEC play.

But LSU won’t have much time to prepare for Mississippi State. The Kentucky series ended Monday night, giving the team only one day between each of its next two games.

The Tigers held an abridged practice Thursday before departing on the five-hour drive to Starkville. Torina hopes to alleviate the additional challenge of a shortened week by conducting another session Friday morning.

Despite minimal practice time, players said they feel rejuvenated by the positive energy and confidence they conjured Wednesday night.

Facing an unranked weekend opponent for the first time in a month and a half doesn’t hurt, either.

“We’re continuing to work hard, knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel through all of this,” senior catcher Kellsi Kloss said Wednesday. “This is kind of the stretch where we can gain a lot of momentum, so we’re going to use it to our advantage big-time.”