When you think about it, Saturday’s 5-4, 11-inning loss to Auburn was really was the perfect way for LSU’s erratic regular season to end.
The tantalizingly talented pitching, in this case Zack Hess, giving up a tying two-run home run in the ninth a strike away from victory. The veteran hitter, in this case Antoine Duplantis, a couple of feet either way from re-tying the game in the 11th with a grounder past third base.
In a season that started with sky-high expectations even by LSU baseball’s sky-high standards — remember that preseason No. 1 ranking? How could anyone forget? — evolving into another great LSU baseball team making another run at postseason titles and a trip to the College World Series just seems to continue to brush past these Tigers’ searching, outstretched fingers.
No question, LSU is rolling into the postseason with some enviable momentum. Duplantis’ three-run home run to beat Arkansas 3-2 last Saturday definitely sparked something in the Tigers, who went on to beat an in-state midweek opponent (UNO 7-5 … I’ll alert the rest of the media). LSU (34-22, 17-13 Southeastern Conference) then took the first two games of the Auburn series 7-1 and 5-1 with some timely and powerful hitting and a pair of combined two-hitters, the first time LSU pitchers have done that in back-to-back games since a pair of one-hitters in 1989.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We fought through a lot of injuries to our pitching and won six of 10 (SEC) series. We didn’t get swept.
“This weekend was a big step in the right direction.”
But the margins for this LSU team are as thin as the paper Saturday’s box score was printed on.
The good news for LSU is Saturday’s loss didn’t cost the Tigers anything as far as their SEC tournament seeding, and they still have hopes of hosting an NCAA regional at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers won the series against an Auburn team that came into the series ranked ahead of them in RPI, and LSU has an impressive 19 top 50 wins, one of the best such totals in the nation.
But LSU goes to Hoover, Alabama, its traditional postseason playland — the Tigers have won six SEC tournament titles under Mainieri and reached the final for a seventh time in 2018 — not knowing who it will start Tuesday night against South Carolina.
Considering the Tigers are the No. 5 seed and the Gamecocks are the No. 12 — just clawing their way into the SEC tournament with an 8-22 conference record — you’d figure LSU to be the overwhelming favorite.
But if you lined up LSU’s injured pitchers this season with their arms outstretched fingertip to fingertip, they’d reach from Alex Box Stadium to the Hoover Met. The Tigers got some good news Saturday in that stud freshman Cole Henry’s simulated game went well but bad news in that freshman Jaden Hill was unable to throw his simulated game at all. That makes him unavailable for the SEC tournament and at this point a write-off for the NCAA tournament as well.
Mainieri wouldn’t come out and say it, but there have to be crossed fingers on every LSU baseball coach’s hand that Henry will be able to start Tuesday and give the Tigers … something. They really don’t have a lot of other dependable options other than, perhaps, Todd Peterson, who pitched twice in relief in the Auburn series.
“He was a little rusty,” Mainieri said of Henry's simulated game. “I’d say he had his ‘B’ stuff.”
Henry’s “B” stuff sounds like the stuff of legends all things considered.
Part of the problem for LSU is timing. The Tigers salvaged the last game of the series at Arkansas and it was seen as a momentum booster. They lost the last game of the Auburn series and it’s a splash of cold water. If LSU had split the first two against Auburn and won Saturday, the series would have a different feel to it.
As it is, you know LSU is playing better. The Tigers know they are playing better.
“The team is really close to where it needs to be,” Hess said.
But there are just enough question marks to give you pause. And that’s what makes Saturday’s loss to Auburn the perfect summation to this quite imperfect LSU baseball season. A season in which the Tigers can see greatness but just haven't figured out the path to it yet.