Thursday’s game against Auburn will be LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s 2,056th as a Division I college baseball coach, and in that span he’s seen plenty of great performances.
Some stand out though, like Auburn right-hander Keegan Thompson’s gem against his club in 2015. In that game, Thompson shut down a potent LSU lineup for nine innings, his lone blemish coming on a solo home run by Andrew Stevenson in the eighth.
“I’ll never forget the game Keegan Thompson pitched here three years ago,” Mainieri said. “Man, that was one of the best-pitched games against one of my teams in my coaching career.”
Greg Deichmann and Kramer Robertson, neither of whom played that day, remembered that game as well.
“I can remember (Alex) Bregman and all those guys talking about how nasty he was,” Robertson said. “We’re going to have our hands full with him, I know that.”
Deichmann, a little more succinctly, “I remember him coming out here and he just shoved.”
This will be LSU’s first opportunity against Thompson since that game, and he’s got another talented starting pitcher backing him up in the rocket-armed right-hander Casey Mize.
The pair have combined to go 11-4 with a 1.75 ERA this season, striking out 137 against just 19 walks in 134 combined innings. Auburn decided to keep them on their regular schedules and throw them in Friday and Saturday’s games this weekend.
“Those guys are going to both present very formidable challenges for us,” Mainieri said. “We’ll have to be at the top of our game, and our pitchers are going to have to pitch outstanding as well, assuming they’re going to be low-scoring games.”
As always seems to be the case in the Southeastern Conference, LSU is not going to see a let up in the quality of the arms the opposing team is going to throw at them.
LSU ran into a buzzsaw in Gainseville against Alex Faedo and Brady Singer, both of whom will likely be first-round Majorl League draft picks at the end of their careers. The Tigers have also faced tough 1-2 punches against Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and South Carolina.
“That’s what you sign up for in the SEC,” said second baseman Cole Freeman. “If you want to play pro ball, this is what you’re going to see every day. It’s getting used to it.
“Obviously, you’d like to have a break every now and then. But it’s what you sign up for. It’s a challenge you’re supposed to meet.”
That Thompson is enjoying a banner season is remarkable in itself. The junior right-hander missed all of 2016 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery after tearing a ligament in his throwing elbow in 2015. When he started on Auburn’s opening day, it had been 21 months since he’d started a collegiate game.
His success has not surprised Robertson, who got to know Thompson while playing with him on the high school showcase circuit.
“It’s just who he is,” Robertson said. “He’s nasty.”
Nor has Mize’s success surprised Freeman, who played with Mize in the Cape Cod League last summer when he hadn’t yet blossomed.
“I remember him coming in and pitching and just watching the fastball explode out of his hands with a really sharp slider,” Freeman said. “He actually got hit around a little bit in the Cape, and I was like, ‘How is this kid getting hit around? He has electric stuff.’
“Of course, he’s one of the best pitchers in the country right now. I’m not surprised by that at all.”
Mize started seven games as a freshman with mixed results last season, going 2-5 with a 3.25 ERA. His lone appearance against LSU in 2016 came out of the bullpen, and LSU knocked him around for three runs on four hits in 2.1 innings.
The Mize LSU will see Saturday has been a completely different pitcher. He sports a sparkling 1.39 ERA — the second best among qualifying pitchers in the league — to go along with an SEC-best 11.97 strikeouts per nine innings.
“Talking to some of the other guys in the SEC who have faced him this year, I know a lot of guys we’ve talked to have said he’s the best arm they have seen all year,” Robertson said. “He’s another guy we’re going to have to go out and battle, but we’re not intimidated by that.”
LSU is undoubtedly in for a big challenge against Auburn’s top two arms in a series with big implications. Mainieri said his players wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you’re a ballplayer, you have to want to face that kind of challenge and that kind of competition,” Mainieri said. “If you’re afraid of it, you can’t come to LSU.”