In the days after losing a heartbreaking NCAA super regional to Florida State in two games, questions abound for the LSU baseball program.
Few of them are happy ones.
That’s the way of it for a program that thinks of itself the way Alabama does in football and Kentucky does in men's basketball when it falls short of always-lofty goals. The days are long on major speculation and worry and short on concrete answers.
Still, let’s have a swing at a few of those questions:
LSU's baseball season ended short of its expectations, and next year, the team will look much different.
Is LSU baseball on the decline?
The recent numbers do paint a disturbing picture. Over the past two seasons, LSU is a combined 79-53 overall and 32-28 in the SEC. That’s mediocre for LSU, period. The Tigers only got to host the super regional this year because, as the No. 13 national seed, they were next in line when Florida State upset No. 4 Georgia in the regional in Athens. LSU lost in a regional last year at eventual national champion Oregon State.
These two average seasons follow a string of six straight years in which LSU was a top-eight national seed. And though the Tigers lost in two games in the College World Series final against Florida in 2017, LSU arguably was an injury to starting pitcher Eric Walker away from being able to beat the Gators. So, in other words, the sky may be full of dark clouds, but it isn’t falling.
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What about all those pitching injuries?
As the saying goes, one is anomaly, two is a coincidence and three is a trend. The Tigers’ rash of pitching injuries the past two seasons is alarming, but it’s impossible to say LSU’s coaching staff is doing something wrong. Alan Dunn has been LSU’s pitching coach since 2012, and there is little evidence he and coach Paul Mainieri are handling LSU’s pitchers any differently from the way they did for all those seasons in which attrition befell the Tigers at what appeared to be an expected rate.
That said, it would be irresponsible of LSU’s staff not to examine every aspect of the way it is handling its pitchers to see if there is some change that could make them a healthier unit in 2020 and beyond.
Because of this season’s numerous injuries, LSU never got close to executing the preseason script. The plan, to move Zack Hess from Friday night anchor to the bullpen when the freshmen came along, was shot full of holes when LSU’s three talented freshmen — Jaden Hill, Cole Henry and Landon Marceaux — spent various stints on the “disabled list.” That doesn’t even begin to account for the complete absence of talented pitchers like A.J. Labas, Nick Storz, Caleb Gilbert and Easton McMurray, the only left-handed pitcher on the roster.
Keep most of those guys healthy and LSU was probably going to be a top-eight national seed. No guarantee of going to the CWS, but the chances would have been better.
A season that began with expectations of Omaha and a seventh national championship ended Sunday evening in heartbreak at Alex Box Stadium.
Is Paul Mainieri on the hot seat?
Not at all, though he did save himself some time in the bun warmer when his team rallied late in the season to be a top-16 seed.
But that does not mean that the pressure for next season won’t be even greater. Since LSU made its first College World Series appearance in 1986, the Tigers have never missed going to Omaha, Nebraska, for more than three straight seasons (2005-07, 2010-12). If LSU doesn’t make it in 2020, the pressure will be intense indeed in 2021.
So how good will LSU be next season?
If healthy, and that is a giant “If,” the pitching staff should be tremendous, though it obviously cries out for a couple of quality lefties. Yes, Hess will go pro, as may fellow junior Todd Peterson, but a starting rotation of Hill, Henry and Marceaux could be incredible. Plus, Walker has to start somewhere and Devin Fontenot, who pitched his guts out Sunday against the Seminoles, will be back to anchor the bullpen.
The lineup will need to be restocked with the likely loss of five regular starters. Rising juniors Daniel Cabrera and Saul Garza (a draft-eligible sophomore but likely to return) and sophomore-to-be Cade Beloso will have to be the heart of the order. And can Hal Hughes, who hit just .174 in 2019 and is batting .201 for his career, stay in the lineup?
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for the LSU baseball team.
Those are big holes for LSU to fill, but not necessarily crippling ones if another strong recruiting class arrives mostly intact as this past season's did.
So, on balance, LSU baseball's situation probably is not as dire as it seems. But in a world where four SEC rivals are in the CWS, five teams from the SEC West reached the super regionals and six SEC West teams made the tournament, the competition is more intense than ever.
It’s not the kind of world that is just going to stand aside and let LSU swagger back to the top. To get there, the Tigers are going to have to pitch and hit, scrap and fight.
It’s going to be mighty interesting to see where LSU baseball is 12 months from now. Probably as interesting as any time in Mainieri’s 12 years as coach.