The LSU baseball team left Alex Box Stadium for its trip to Arkansas on Wednesday looking, as always, dressed for success. Coach Paul Mainieri makes his players and staff wear dress shirts and ties when they travel, most of them tacking on sports coats and slacks and polished shoes.
Still, there was a sense as they got on their chartered bus for the ride to the airport that they could just as well as have been wearing buckskin and carrying muskets as they trooped off to defend the Alamo.
Mainieri lamented how the want of one more run in Sunday’s epic ninth-inning, two-out comeback against Ole Miss could have changed the whole impression of his team as they head off for the final regular-season road trip. But LSU’s six runs that day only led to a tie going into the 10th inning of another Tigers’ loss, 19-15.
Were it only that easy for one more run to change the LSU dynamic. Instead, in the sport in which winning has come so easy so often for the Tigers, it looks like they’re headed into an ambush, especially after Tuesday night’s wretched 12-1 loss at home against Louisiana Tech.
A trip to face Arkansas at its home park in the rolling Ozark foothills looks more like an attempt to scale Annapurna (not the world’s highest mountain but statistically the most dangerous). The Razorbacks are 37-12 and 17-7 in conference play and lead the SEC West by two games over Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The Razorbacks, basically one dropped ball away from their first College World Series title last year against Oregon State, are a projected high top-eight NCAA tournament seed again this year.
“This is what makes you want to come to LSU and play baseball,” said shortstop Josh Smith, who was seen taking extra fielding practice after the Tech game following his third straight game with an error. “Getting to play a top-five team on the road with a chance to put our name back in the (race for) the SEC West standings and go from there.”
That sounds great, until you remember that LSU is usually the top-five team someone else is trying to knock off.
Frankly, the road has been a trail of tears for LSU long before we get to see what awaits the Tigers in Fayetteville. At 30-19 overall and 14-10 in Southeastern Conference play, LSU is only 6-11 away from Alex Box Stadium including a 6-6 mark in SEC road series. Almost unbelievably, LSU is 0-6 in non-conference games outside The Box with losses at Texas, Northwestern State, Southern and in Metairie against UL.
Taking into account Arkansas’ stout 26-5 home record, the fact that the Razorbacks are third in the SEC with a .309 batting average and LSU’s starting rotation is in a shambles, it is hard to paint a scenario in which the Tigers are going to avoid being slaughtered in this three-game series, which starts with Thursday's 6:30 p.m. opener on ESPNU.
“Arkansas is one of the best teams in the nation and has a great offense,” said Eric Walker, LSU’s Saturday starting pitcher, without much encouragement tinting his voice. “It’s a tough series on the road and we have to do the best we can.”
There are only two things that make you even think for a moment that LSU could come home with a series win this weekend. One is the fact the Tigers have owned the Razorbacks in recent years, going a combined 22-6 against Arkansas since 2012 including a 6-3 mark in Fayetteville. The other is that despite all the problems, Mainieri’s teams usually flip a switch in May and start playing patented winning LSU baseball.
“We’ve played Arkansas before when they’ve had some really good teams, when you would say they’re better than you, and we’ve found a way,” Mainieri said. “I’m just going to be very optimistic and hopeful that we’re going to go up there and battle like crazy and get some breaks.”
But maybe this team doesn’t have a switch to flip. What if, as Jack Nicholson once asked with those patented arched eyebrows, this is as good as it gets?
Smith admitted baseball hasn’t been much fun lately for him and the rest of the Tigers, players who marched out of the locker room with their gear in tow with something resembling grim determination on their faces.
“It’s the biggest weekend of the year so far,” Smith said. “Hopefully we’ll go out and play our best ball so far.”
The worry for LSU baseball is, what if the best it can manage right now isn’t nearly good enough?