Baseball is the bastion of conjecture and second-guessing.
Tack on a few extra days between games and up the magnitude of the games by a hundred, and you’ve got the buildup to LSU’s first pitch of this year’s College World Series at 7 p.m. Saturday against Florida State.
There are plenty of topics to tackle, but we’ll settle on this big five.
1. Should freshman Eric Walker start one of LSU’s first two games?
In perhaps the least surprising decision of the season, coach Paul Mainieri announced Tuesday that junior ace pitcher Alex Lange will start against the Seminoles.
It seems natural to expect that senior left-hander Jared Poche will start Game 2, trying to give the Tigers command of their bracket with a 2-0 record or keep their season alive with an elimination-game victory.
Natural perhaps, but maybe not the inevitable choice.
Poche is 7-1 in the postseason in his career but has had a rocky NCAA tournament. He gave up seven runs, though just one earned, in an error-plagued regional-opening win over Texas Southern. Then he cruised through the first two innings of Sunday’s super regional game against Mississippi State before striking an iceberg in the third, requiring Mainieri to turn to Caleb Gilbert for six innings of brilliant long relief.
Walker was superb in his past two starts, both big games for LSU. He gave up one run and five hits over 7.2 innings in the SEC tournament final against Arkansas, then threw eight innings of seven-hit shutout ball to clinch the NCAA regional against Rice.
The kid may be light on experience and is hardly overpowering with a fastball that usually tops out about 90 mph, but he’s been fearless and has exceptional control that’s eluded Poche (20 walks in his past 31 innings) of late.
If Mainieri decides to go with the experienced Poche in Game 2, even if it’s against top-ranked Oregon State, it could hardly be characterized as a mistake. It’s just that based on recent results, Walker could be the wiser choice.
2. Will it be Nick Coomes or Jake Slaughter at first base?
Coomes got the Wally Pipp treatment in the regional after injuring his thumb. He hasn’t seen action since the Texas Southern game, giving way to Slaughter who’s started the past four. Slaughter hasn’t exactly lit up LSU’s lineup like fireworks. He has three hits and an RBI in the past four games with that rough error in the first game of the super regional that led to a potentially crucial run.
There’s the old axiom that a player doesn’t lose his job due to injury. Of course, there’s an exception to every rule (see Pipp, Wally). Though Coomes was pronounced healthy enough to play in the super regional (he pinch hit late in Game 2), at this point Mainieri may be loathe to make a chance and further juggle the lineup that changed significantly when Zach Watson moved up to fifth in the regional against Southeastern Louisiana.
3. Can Michael Papierski stay hot?
On April 14 against Ole Miss, the LSU catcher’s average dipped to .197. Since then he’s hitting at a .308 clip (24-for-78) with 21 RBIs and five home runs. Few Tigers if any have a better batter’s eye than Papierski, who possesses the patience to wait and wait for a fastball he can drive. He used that measured approach to drive in the go-ahead runs in both of the Tigers’ super regional victories. Add his ability to switch hit and you have an atypical hot hitter with power in the No. 8 hole in LSU’s lineup.
4. Can LSU get to its bullpen bulldogs?
The Tigers are playing well enough to know the formula they need to win in Omaha. They need to get enough timely hits and good starting pitching to deliver the game to the increasingly stout back end of its bullpen: Gilbert, Zack Hess and closer Hunter Newman.
Gilbert has been LSU’s stealth weapon, winning four starts in the Tigers’ past 10 wins. If LSU can get the ball to those guys tied or with the lead, they could be in Omaha quite a while.
5. Who is the Tigers’ ‘X’ factor?
It’s easy to say Gilbert, who could be called on to stabilize and/or win a game or two for the Tigers in long relief. But for an everyday player there’s Watson, who since moving into the five hole behind the clean up-hitting Greg Deichmann has made it vastly less appealing for teams to walk the big LSU right fielder.
Neither hit a home run in the super regional (Watson had four in the regional) but that could change in TD Ameritrade Park, whose dimensions are pretty similar to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium where the ball was jumping over the fence. The Tigers are going to need the occasional long ball, and Watson should make sure Deichmann gets a good pitch to launch or gets one himself.