HOOVER, Ala. — Paul Mainieri’s son Tommy texted his dad before the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament to ask him who he thought Vanderbilt would be pitching if it played LSU.
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Mainieri said. “He goes, ‘Doesn’t matter. It’ll be someone throwing 93, 94 anyway.’”
Tommy Mainieri’s observation was spot on, if not in the way he intended.
It didn’t matter who Vanderbilt pitched against LSU on Wednesday. The way the Tigers have been hitting the ball lately, they treated the Commodores’ high-grade hurlers like they have everyone else.
LSU’s 27-0 victory over Northwestern State last week was an anomaly by any standard, a perfect storm of hitting. The Tigers’ 29 runs in a three-game sweep at Auburn could be written off as beating down a bad team that didn’t even make the 12-team SEC tournament field.
But Vanderbilt? That’s a different story. And a much more impressive tale to tell.
The Commodores came here with a No. 6 RPI thanks in large part due to their pitching. Vandy trots out hurler after hurler who clock in on the radar gun north of 90 mph. Pitchers like Jared Miller, who turned the Tigers’ bats to rust in a 5-3 Saturday victory back on March 15. Or his relief, Hayden Stone, came into the game with a miniscule 1.10 earned run average, not having allowed a home run in 41 innings.
That changed with one swing by Alex Bregman in the fourth inning as he belted a three-run home run to left — no small feat given Hoover Metropolitan Stadium’s immense dimensions — that broke open a 2-1 game and gave the Tigers an insurmountable 5-1 lead.
LSU didn’t stop there. Right now, it seems like the Tigers can’t. If there’s a stop button, it got smashed by one of LSU’s numerous rocket-launcher hits.
The Tigers pounded Vanderbilt for 15 hits and probably would have hammered out even more had the game not ended because of the tournament’s 10-run rule with LSU leading 11-1 in the bottom of the seventh. Actually, the umpires didn’t realize the game should have ended and allowed Jake Fraley to bat, reaching base on an error that was eventually erased.
Things are going so well right now for LSU, the fact that the game ended in the seventh inning allowed Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn to conserve their bullpen. Freshman Jared Poché, making the biggest start of a college career still possessing that new car smell, overcame a shaky first inning (three hits, Vandy’s run) to shut down the Commodores for only two hits and a walk the rest of the way. Thanks to that, LSU has a full array of relievers to use behind staff ace Aaron Nola on Thursday and in whatever games there are to come.
Nola’s pitching and LSU’s hot hitting are a heady combination, especially when you consider these stunning numbers:
During their five-game winning streak, a span of 40 innings total, the Tigers have pounded out 67 runs on 76 hits. LSU is hitting .398 as a team in that stretch and has driven its batting average up 13 points from .271 to .284.
“Our guys just feel like they can hit anybody now,” said Mainieri, who was clearly having to do his best to contain his delight in the postgame news conference. “They just feel great at the plate.”
The question is, why? Why now after a season in which LSU’s offense for the most part was dolled out in small, unsatisfying portions, have the Tigers finally found the car keys to their now growling engine of an offense?
Mainieri offered some theories.
“School’s out. The kids are focusing more on baseball. The weather’s warmer. The winds are generally more favorable. The hotter it gets, the more the offense grows,” he said.
“We’ve figured out the roles each player is supposed to have for our team. I’ve always believed you have to have confidence before you can start to hit well, but once you hit well, your confidence continues to grow.”
A hot streak often defies concise description. You just know you should ride it as far as it will take you, because it can just as easily evaporate like a mirage.
Arkansas’ pitching is good enough to break LSU’s hitting heat wave with a polar vortex. But the Razorbacks have already used their No. 1 and No. 3 pitchers to get to this winners’ bracket game and didn’t bring their No. 2 pitcher because of injury.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter right now who Arkansas — or anyone else — throws against LSU.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter at @RabalaisAdv.