HOOVER, Ala. — The sound you heard coming from these parts Thursday night was the lock slamming shut on the LSU Tigers’ hopes of being a national seed in this year’s NCAA tournament.
If it was even a debate before it no longer is now, not after LSU put Kentucky in a 10-0 headlock here Thursday night. Debate sailed over the left field fence at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium with Kramer Robertson’s towering three-run home run in the fifth.
Robertson slowed his trot between home and first and later sheepishly admitted he was afraid it wouldn’t leave the yard for a second. But you can forgive him and all the Tigers if they took a moment – and the winner’s bracket rest that they get Friday is as good a time as any – to pause and enjoy their handiwork.
A middling 27-15 the night of April 25 after a aggravating 9-6 loss at Tulane, yet another night when the pitching wasn’t up to par and the hitting wasn’t quite either, this LSU team has reinvented itself.
The Tigers are 14-2 since that frustrating night in New Orleans, with only losses to South Carolina and South Alabama (Thursday’s RPI: 37) to even remotely mar the record.
They’ve scored double digit runs in four straight SEC games, the first time that’s happened since 2000 (one of LSU’s national title years). They hung the season’s first shutout on Kentucky, the team that came here leading the SEC in eight of 14 offensive statistical categories. And the defense remains as tight as always — the Tigers have committed just 10 errors in those last 16 games.
How different a team is LSU from the last time it faced Kentucky on a chilly and damp weekend in Lexington? The Tigers lost two of three there in the Wildcats softball-sized park, dropping them at the time to 10-8 in SEC play.
Since then, counting the two wins here against Missouri and UK, the Tigers have won 13 of their last 14 against SEC opposition.
“We’re a totally different team,” Robertson said. “We’ve figured out a lineup that’s working for us, and our (pitching) rotation and defense has been strong.”
Here’s an example of how the Tigers are playing now compared to then: Robertson and Duplantis both said how much better UK pitcher Sean Hjelle’s stuff was Thursday night compared to that in his 12-5 win over LSU back on April 21. “Electric,” coach Paul Mainieri called it.
But yet they were hitting it. Repeatedly. Hjelle, the 6-foot-11 Kentucky right-hander who looks like he got lost on his way to Rupp Arena and wound up at the ballpark instead, did strike out 10 Tigers over five innings. But the SEC pitcher of the year surrendered 10 runs (nine earned) on 11 hits, most of them stinging line drives and bowling ball-like grounders that LSU is now to be clustering in potent little bunches.
HOOVER, Ala. — Kramer Robertson came to the plate in the fifth inning as the only player in the LSU lineup without a hit against Kentucky pit…
“Regardless of if it was Nolan Ryan or Joe Blow on the mound, we felt we could hit anybody right now,” Robertson said. “We’re just confident as a ballclub. We want to keep this rolling.”
The roll the Tigers are on right now has rendered Sunday night’s announcement of the 16 NCAA regional sites a mere formality as far as LSU hosting is concerned. Monday’s announcement of the 64-team field including the eight national seeds is now similarly devoid of drama in Baton Rouge.
WarrenNolan.com, the website that does a spot on job of mimicking NCAA RPI rankings, had Kentucky at No. 6 and LSU at No. 8 entering Thursday’s game. Afterward they had flipped, LSU at No. 6 and UK at No. 8.
Whatever Kryptonite the Wildcats might have held in store for the Tigers as far as competing for a national seed (UK would have beaten LSU three of four with a win here), LSU stuffed that into a lead-lined box. The season series is now even 2-2 and the Tigers can lord their 21 RPI top 50 wins over the Wildcats’ still impressive 17 plus their LSU’s SEC regular season co-championship with Florida (also a top eight lock).
“We’re really looking good,” said Duplantis, which served as almost comical understatement.
Being a national seed is of course not a guarantee that the Tigers will advance in NCAA play from Baton Rouge to Omaha. But with no LSU game to watch Friday, after work would be a good time to start stocking up on enough turduckens and sausage for regional and super regional tailgating.
Lost in all the offense and what this win means for LSU as a team was a history-making performance by junior Alex Lange.
Pitching in what was certainly his last SEC tournament start, Lange sawed off the SEC’s top offense with its first shutout of the season, a seven-inning six-hitter. In the process Lange, who struck out seven, moved one ahead of LSU great (and one of the game’s SEC Network broadcasters) Ben McDonald for second place on the school’s career strikeout list. Scott Schultz (1992-95) is still tops with 409, but Lange now has 374 to McDonald’s 373 from 1987-89.
“Being mentioned at the same time as Ben McDonald is humbling,” Lange said. “The guy laid the groundwork (for LSU) with Skip (Bertman).
“I pick his brain a lot. It’s a true honor. It really is.”
With all the focus on what the win means for LSU’s NCAA fortunes, there is still the matter of trying to win this tournament. The Tigers are into the semifinals for the fifth straight year, but now it’s back to single elimination. LSU waits until noon Saturday for the winner of Friday’s 3 p.m. game between Kentucky and South Carolina. You can bet if they’re still alive the Wildcats will be looking for some revenge, and to try to secure that one last national seed that’s probably still floating around, by beating LSU if it gets a rematch.
“I thought we played a real outstanding ballgame in every phase,” Mainieri said. “But it’s a humbling game. We may see these guys again Saturday and I’m sure they’ll be very determined.”
That may turn out to be. But determining whether LSU has done enough here to be a national seed? The only think left to figure out what the Tigers’ number will be.