It’s early yet. Way early. There are tons of delegates to count before everyone masses at the college baseball national convention known as the College World Series.
But in the early returns and exit polls, the shambles of Friday night’s 7-1 loss to Ball State besides, the word on LSU’s Tigers has been pretty favorable.
Maybe I’m writing this because I came into this season with pretty low — for LSU baseball standards — expectations for this edition of the Tigers. Too many holes to fill in the lineup, too many young and inexperienced players still under warranty to expect anything truly special like yet another trip to the CWS.
That’s probably still the case, but the pop in LSU’s bats — overseen by the coach with the Popeye arms, hitting assistant Andy Cannizaro — has been more impressive so far that one might have expected from so many sapling sticks.
The Tigers came into this soggy series opener batting a respectable .310, with double-digit hits in nine of their past 10 games. Make that now nine of their past 11, but the Tigers scalded more than a few line drives that found Cardinals gloves. That’s how baseball is.
True, the vast majority of the pitching hasn’t been Southeastern Conference caliber. But with SEC play cranking up next weekend — LSU is home against Alabama — confidence is building.
For LSU coach Paul Mainieri, this time of year that counts for a lot.
“I think we’ve probably started to swing the bats better than I thought we would a little bit earlier,” Mainieri said Thursday. “I didn’t expect necessarily that the infield would be in such flux the way it was earlier in the year. But I think we’ve settled in, and I think the reason we’ve settled in is really because of the evolvement of Kramer Robertson.
“I always felt he had the best tools to be our shortstop; he just needed to have the self-confidence and aura about him of leadership. He’s arrived and he’s done that, so I feel more confident now that he’s our everyday shortstop. I think Cole Freeman will be outstanding at second, and O’Neal Lochridge has done a serviceable job at third base.”
Mainieri’s early enthusiasm for his infield comes even after the unit had to be refigured because the bat of projected starting shortstop Trey Dawson failed to ignite after a couple of starts.
“I think we’ve got our infield set now the way I want it to be,” Mainieri said.
LSU’s coach is an unreformed tinkerer of lineups, so certainly he reserves the right to shuffle some more pieces around Alex Box Stadium’s green chessboard as he sees fit. But it’s an encouraging sign for what was perceived to be the Tigers’ weakness.
LSU’s perceived strength — pitching — has by comparison produced more concerns in the Tigers’ first dozen or so games.
Sophomore Alex Lange’s next collegiate loss will still be his first, but he has been roughed up in his past two outings and enters his Saturday start with a very un-Alex Lange-like 4.15 ERA.
Friday night starter Jared Poché came into the weekend with a 0.92 ERA but gave up home runs to the Ball State Cardinals — four of them — like he was throwing batting practice to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Cross it off as one bad night when Poché was leaving too many good pitches up and over the plate — for now — but sound an alarm if he gets similar treatment next Friday against Alabama.
“I know there’s been a lot of attention given to Alex Lange and his so-called struggles,” Mainieri said. “We should all struggle at the level he struggles; I think he’s struck out 25 in (17.1) innings. But he needs to tighten it up a little bit, his command’s been a little bit off and he’s fallen behind on some hitters, walked a few too many batters.
“I think Poché’s done well; he needs to tighten it up as well. I think John Valek has emerged, and hopefully he’ll pitch well against this weekend. I think our rotation looks good, and I think Caleb Gilbert will be a really fine closer for us.
“If I have a concern at all for our team, that I think we need to get better at, it’s that bridge. Those setup guys to get from our starter to our closer. There’s guys there that I know can do the job because they’ve done it before; we just need to get them pitching at the level that they can pitch at. I think we’ll be ready for SEC play next weekend.”
SEC play certainly will be the acid test for the Tigers. And for now, Omaha and the CWS remain a distant star that should appear to be much more in reach for LSU in 2017.
But for now, the rebuilding job on Gourrier Lane looks a little ahead of schedule.