At nearly 15,000 square feet and two hulking stories, the new LSU Softball Performance Center under construction behind right field at Tiger Park makes the playing field look even smaller than it is.
Then again, maybe it’s the power surge the Tigers have been on this season that has shrunk the airspace between home plate and the outfield wall.
That No. 5-ranked LSU (40-12, 14-7 Southeastern Conference) is going into this weekend’s season-ending series against No. 4 Alabama (47-6, 15-6 SEC) with the regular-season conference title on the line is as much as anything a tribute to the tower of power that has been the Tigers’ lineup this season.
LSU came out of the gate swinging in a 19-1 five-inning, run rule-shortened victory over Tulsa and hasn’t stopped bashing the ball. The Tigers have scored seven or more runs (an average of one per inning or better) 23 times. LSU enters this showdown series with Bama leading the SEC in average (.324) and slugging percentage (.547). The Tigers’ single-season school record 67 home runs rank third in the conference behind only the Crimson Tide (71) and Georgia (70).
Shemiah Sanchez and Shelbi Sunseri (also LSU’s winningest pitcher at 12-5) lead the Tigers with 16 and 15 home runs, respectively. Five other LSU players have five or more home runs.
Last year, LSU hit just .260 with 41 home runs in 62 games and a had a slugging percentage of just .384. But with the loss to graduation of All-American pitchers Carley Hoover and Allie Walljasper, the Tigers’ earned run average was bound to rise. And it has. LSU had a team ERA of 1.57 last year to 2.46 this season, tied for sixth in the SEC.
LSU coach Beth Torina knew if her team was to be a contender in the SEC and have the ability to make another run at the Women’s College World Series they were going to have to hit their way there.
“Losing the two All-Americans on the mound, we understood the offense had to do a little more this year,” Torina said Thursday. “I think we understood we’d have to do some things differently and they’ve shown they can. They’ve shown they can win in a lot of ways. We’ve shown we can throw a shut out. We’ve shown we can score 19 runs in the first game, that we can do it all. I think that’s pretty impressive from this group.”
The Tigers’ ability to hit or pitch their way to another 40-season has bred confidence in players like senior shortstop Amber Serrett.
“Every team has to have a different dynamic,” said Serrett, who herself has a career-high six homers in 2019. “You lose people, you gain people, and that falls to us in the offseason to kind of see what we need. I think we did a good job of filling voids here and there.
“What I love about this team is we play as a team. Every weekend, someone different gets something done. I think that’s awesome.”
It is not to say LSU’s pitching has been bad. The Tigers’ top three arms — Sunseri, Shelby Wickersham and Maribeth Gorsuch — all have ERAs of 2.62 or lower. But softball in general has become a more offensive-oriented game since 20 years ago when Torina was a pitcher at Florida.
As in baseball, the ability to break down opponents on video has been a sea change.
“We have seven series of Alabama, not to mention the non-conference stuff,” Torina said. “We have the opportunity to see them so much, pick apart their pitchers and what they do.
“It’s really changed the game a lot and helped grow the offense, too. You can’t just have this one deceptive arm anymore because people will pick them apart.”
Torina said pulling video off the SEC Network has been a huge boost. For her program specifically, so has the addition of a video coordinator, Matt Karin, now in his third season with the program.
“We needed it,” Torina said. “Our staff was trying to do the job of a video coordinator and coach and we were overwhelmed.
“It frees us up to be coaches and allows us to actually do with the video what we need to do, which is watch it and prepare rather than cut it and record it and all those things.”
LSU wins the SEC title outright if it sweeps Alabama, a tall order. Even if the Tigers take two of three the teams tie for first.
The big video board in right had the word “Fight” on it Thursday in huge white letters. For the Tigers to wind up as SEC champions by Sunday night, they are going to have to fight for runs against Alabama, and send a few balls flying over that right field fence toward the construction zone.