As LSU prepared to play the second game of a doubleheader last weekend, Paul Mainieri turned to hitting coach Sean Ochinko.
“We can't win this last game if Zach Watson doesn't step up for us,” Mainieri said.
The Tigers had split the first two games of a series with Texas A&M, which started two of the best left-handed pitchers in the Southeastern Conference. The Aggies had another lefty scheduled for game three.
With a lineup reliant on left-handed hitters, Mainieri believed Watson, the only hitter giving LSU consistent production from the right side, had to play well. A few hours later, Watson collected four hits. He came a triple shy of the cycle — “Maybe I’ll get it one day,” he said — leading LSU to a 9-3 win.
“It became a real team effort,” Mainieri said, “but Watson was the one who got us going."
Mainieri said that weekend LSU had never seen so many left-handed pitchers. But as Mainieri has pointed out, starting Friday night against Missouri it’ll face at least two more lefties — at a time when LSU is trying to find consistent offense.
Who's starting, how to watch, what to watch for as No. 8 LSU travels to Missouri.
Despite having never played further than the SEC tournament since joining the conference in 2012, Missouri has kept itself in postseason contention this season on the strength of its pitching staff.
Missouri has a 2.77 ERA, lowest in the SEC, and has held opponents to a .233 batting average. Its top starters, TJ Sikkema and Jacob Cantleberry, both have more than 50 strikeouts.
To prepare for this avalanche of left-handed pitching, LSU last week during batting practice set its pitching machine on the left side of the mound. Other than that and some drills, Mainieri said “there's really not a lot you can do.” Success, he said, comes from thinking about hitting the ball up the middle.
LSU has a 10-3 record against left-handed starting pitching, but it’s coming off a disheartening Tuesday loss to Southern, its third midweek loss of the season, in which LSU scored two runs.
Three days earlier, LSU hung nine on Texas A&M.
For just the third time, Southern baseball beat LSU.
“It can be baffling sometimes,” Mainieri said. “There's obviously some issues with us offensively and certainly with consistency.”
Mainieri thought LSU’s troubling offensive pattern came from its reliance on the top of the order: Josh Smith, Watson, Antoine Duplantis and Daniel Cabrera, whose status for the weekend remains undecided. When they don’t produce, LSU stalls.
“It's a lot of pressure on those kids,” Mainieri said. “I hate for it to be that way. I wish we were stronger one through nine, where different guys took turns being the hero on a given day. When the main guys don't have a good day, it's very difficult for us to score runs.”
LSU doesn’t have a reliable right-handed hitter outside of Watson. Every other right-handed batter on the team is batting under .215. So when LSU faces left-handed pitching, pressure mounts on Watson.
LSU baseball was ranked in the top 10 of four polls this week.
“When Watson gets hot, he's one of the best hitters I've ever seen,” Smith said. “He doesn't miss pitches.”
Watson, a junior center fielder, understood his importance against Texas A&M, even as LSU moved right-handed second baseman Brandt Broussard as high as fifth in the lineup to split the six lefties in the batting order.
Watson didn’t hit well until the series’ final game. Once he did, and the level of pitching dropped off, LSU won in a blowout. He knows he needs to hit well again this weekend. He wants to hang on to the same approach and mindset he used against Texas A&M.
“It's always going to be big on my shoulders whenever we face a lot of lefties,” Watson said.