When Cole Freeman steps to the plate with two strikes in the count, his objective is clear.
He isn’t there to knock the cover off the ball or drive in a half-dozen runs per game. His job is to put the ball in play and make the defense beat him.
If the defense does beat Freeman, well, good for the defense. Otherwise, Freeman will make the other team pay.
That’s not only his strategy. It’s the team's strategy.
The Tigers open their best-of-three super regional against Mississippi State at 8 p.m. Saturday in Alex Box Stadium, and they've gotten this far in large part because of their approach at the plate.
Given the option, LSU would prefer to ground out or fly out rather than striking out. In other words, if you’re going to go down, go down swinging — and get a piece of the ball along the way.
This is not exactly a radical practice. But the Tigers are pretty good at it, and none of them is better than Freeman.
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“I was obviously kind of blessed with hand-eye coordination,” Freeman said. “I don’t really swing and miss much. And I’ve known for a while that’s the part of my game that I have to be really good at. I really take the approach that when I get a pitch that I can hit or put in play that I don’t really miss it. I think if you do that, you’re not in the two-strike counts as much, and you’re getting better pitches to hit.”
Freeman struck out 18 times this season, or once every 13.2 at-bats. His is the 30th-toughest player in the nation to strike out. Only one other SEC player, South Carolina's LT Tolbert, is in the top 100; he struck out just once every 10.7 at-bats.
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But Freeman isn't the only LSU player who makes opposing defenses work for their outs.
LSU struck out the fewest of any SEC program at 366 times — 17 fewer than the next-closest team in South Carolina, which played three fewer games.
On average, LSU strikes out 5.81 times per game — far less than the league average at 7.32 per outing.
Last weekend, in three NCAA regional games, the Tigers struck out 10 times in 99 at-bats.
“We just have really good players and really talented players that have bought into that approach,” said shortstop Kramer Robertson, who has 25 strikeouts to his name this season. “We’re also veteran; we’re mature; we’re not afraid to hit with two strikes. We’ve been doing it for so long that I think we’ve just bought into the approach. We have a lot of athletic guys. We recruit a lot of guys that are good for that type of game.”
The anti-strikeout strategy, of course, puts the defense on its heels, forcing them to make plays.
As an infielder, Freeman knows first-hand the frustration of throwing out a speedy runner, even on routine grounders. It just helps that LSU has a deadly balance of hard hitters and fast runners.
The Tigers are second in the conference with a .390 on-base percentage, second only to Kentucky. Heading into this weekend’s super regional, LSU boasts five starters with on-base percentages above .400.
“When you put the ball in play, something good can happen,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “They can make an error on the play, you can get a good break, maybe it finds a hole. You have speed, so sometimes you can beat the play out to first base. When you strike out, nothing good happens. You can’t defend a walk and you can’t get anything good to happen when you strike out.
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“But that’s not rocket science in our sport. I’m sure a lot of coaches emphasize that aspect. We’ve just got players with the ability to execute, and I think they’re doing a really good job.”