No matter what you think of the current state of the LSU baseball program and the current state of this 2021 season, there is one thing I believe most if not all LSU observers can agree on:
It’s supposed to be better than this.
The Tigers lost two of three at home two weeks ago in their Southeastern Conference opener to Mississippi State. That’s one thing. State is one of the Southeastern Conference's traditional baseball powers. It happens.
Then the Tigers went on the road and were swept in three games at Tennessee — game, set, rocky top. Very rocky. Even in the rare years where Tennessee baseball is good — the Volunteers' 2019 NCAA tournament appearance was their first since 2005 — it isn’t acceptable in these parts that they sweep LSU. That would be like Kentucky accepting it lost twice in one season in basketball to Ohio U. or some such program.
But here LSU finds itself, 16-8 overall and 1-5 in SEC play with No. 1 Vanderbilt coming to town this weekend. A Vanderbilt team whose top two pitchers — Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter — may go “a one and a two” in this year’s major league draft. At this moment, it seems the best the Tigers can hope for is not to get swept by the Commodores.
Again, as far as LSU baseball is concerned, it’s supposed to be better than this, no matter how good Vandy is.
With LSU 1-5 in the SEC for the first time since 2011, coach Paul Mainieri uses the 2008 season as a lesson.
This is a tough year to be handicapping college baseball. The NCAA’s right-thinking decision to allow spring sports athletes to return for an extra season, coupled with last year’s shortened major league draft, has swelled rosters everywhere with a surplus of talent. That’s especially true in the hyper-competitive SEC, which is to college baseball what the Middle East is to oil.
Against that backdrop, LSU’s baseball team looks like that giant cargo ship that was wedged for six days across the Suez Canal.
Big. Important. Helpless.
What salvage crew is coming to pull the Tigers out of the mud? Is it pitching? Presumed staff ace Jaden Hill looks like he’s regressing, and LSU overall issued 23 walks in its three lost days and nights in Knoxville. Is it hitting? LSU outhit Tennessee 31-20 and went into Tuesday’s home game against South Alabama leading the nation with 42 home runs. But the Tigers stranded 25 runners on base at Tennessee. Stringing together hits has been an issue all season.
And, frankly, it’s not just this season. Numbers don’t lie. Since LSU made its last appearance in the College World Series in 2017, losing to Florida in the championship series, the Tigers are 107-66 overall. That’s a winning percentage of .618. And LSU is 33-33 in conference, not having played any SEC games in 2020 because the season was canceled.
It’s supposed to be better than this.
It is no great sin to be a middling program in the talent-stuffed SEC this season. Frankly, I put the over/under of SEC teams in Omaha this year at three. And I’m willing to bet one of them will be a team that bumped around the middle of the conference standings all year before striking a hot iron in May.
Will that team be LSU? As coach Paul Mainieri rightly pointed out, the Tigers have done it before. In 2008 they won 23 straight after a 6-11-1 SEC start and made it to the CWS. It was a remarkable run, one of the most impressive feats in LSU baseball history that did not end with a national championship.
Mainieri said he’s not giving up, believing this team could make a shot-for-shot remake of that fondly remembered season.
“Everyone is writing us off,” he said. “I’ve been through this before.”
What good does it do, Mainieri asked, to give up hope? No good. But hope is a flimsy branch to be clinging to when Rocker and Leiter and Vandy are coming to town, hoping to leave after having buried you in a 1-8 SEC hole.
Things could have turned out very differently for LSU at Tennessee. Of that there is no doubt. The Tigers lost the opener 3-1, had the bad luck of losing a weather-delayed middle game 9-8 in 11 innings and then lost 3-2 in extra innings again.
LSU was competitive in every game. But it didn’t make the key pitch, the timely hit, to win games.
“When you’re not competitive,” Mainieri said, “that’s the worst feeling in the world. But I believe we are competitive. We’re just snake bit.”
Perhaps. But it’s easy to remember the time when the snake would bite the Tiger and fall dead itself.
That’s the way it used to be with LSU baseball. The way it is supposed to be.