Maybe, finally, this LSU baseball team has developed its sense of urgency muscles.
Hopefully for their sake it won’t result in another injury.
The end of the regular season and perhaps the last of their chances to play in beloved Alex Box Stadium has steamed into full view for these Tigers like a massive cargo ship docked on the other side of the Mississippi River levee.
Tigers like junior pitcher Zack Hess and junior shortstop Josh Smith, both likely to turn pro after this season, don’t want to think about the end coming so abruptly.
“Hopefully this won’t be our last weekend at The Box,” Smith said Wednesday. “It hasn’t hit me yet.”
“I try not to think about that,” Hess said. “We’re going to try to see what we can do to get a regional.”
There was a time, not so very long ago, when hosting a regional was a rite of spring at LSU. Memorial Day weekend comes round and you crank up the A/C and cram the SUV for NCAA regional tailgating at The Box. From 2012-17, LSU was a top-eight national seed, hosting 11 regionals and super regionals during that span.
But there are no guarantees in sports. Long ago, LSU bought its way into hosting a regional or two back in the 1990s, but your dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. Now, it’s all based on merit. You have to prove it, not pay for it.
For LSU to host a regional, the Tigers have to win. Last Saturday’s 3-2 series-salvaging win at Arkansas was a start, allowing the Tigers, as pitcher Todd Peterson said, to return home with their heads held high. Tuesday’s 7-5 victory over UNO was another baby step in the right direction.
“We won a midweek game. So that’s nice,” Smith said with a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “(Antoine) Duplantis and (Daniel) Cabrera are swinging the bats well, and we had good pitching.”
Pitching. It has been the key word and the curse word of this 2019 season for LSU (32-21, 15-12 Southeastern Conference). A season that started Feb. 15 and saw the Tigers’ pitching staff reach its medical deductible by Mardi Gras.
I asked LSU coach Paul Mainieri if Duplantis’ game-winning three-run home run in the Arkansas finale made him a believer that one moment, one spark of brilliance can turn a season around.
“I’m a believer in starting pitching,” Mainieri immediately shot back. “If you get a good starting pitching performance, you’ve got a good chance to win.”
With an eye to next week’s SEC tournament, LSU is starting the weekend with two guys coming off encouraging performances at Arkansas: third-year junior Eric Walker on Thursday and freshman Landon Marceaux on Friday.
Saturday? Well, the Tigers will figure that out when they get there. Same as who will start LSU’s SEC tournament opener Tuesday in Hoover, Alabama. Running Walker and Marceaux out there the first two games of the Auburn series gives LSU a chance to bring them back to start Wednesday and Thursday in Hoover.
If there is a Wednesday and Thursday in Hoover for LSU. The Tigers have to win that all-or-nothing Tuesday game to get there since they won’t be a top-four seed with an automatic bye into the double-elimination part of the tournament.
It’s all part of the tower of Jenga pieces that is LSU’s patchwork pitching and LSU’s season at this moment. If it all works out positively, if LSU wins the Auburn series and can win at least two in Hoover to get to at least 36 wins, a regional at The Box may even be a likely outcome. And who knows? If the top-eight national seed falls in the opposite regional, as top-eight seeds always do, maybe LSU can sneak into hosting a super.
It all may be too much to ask, but at least the Tigers have hope. Hanging by a thin thread perhaps, but it’s more than what they had a week ago staring down the prospect of a sweep at Arkansas.
As for Auburn (31-21, 13-14 SEC), those Tigers won’t be a pushover, though they have lost three of their previous four SEC road series and are 3-6 in their past nine SEC games.
But the opportunity is there. Considering how LSU’s season has gone, maybe that’s all that this team can wish for at this point.
“The end of the season is always when the Tigers take off,” Cabrera said. “We’ve got a different mindset now. We know we’ve got to get it going.”
It might have been nice if they had that mindset a few weeks ago. But it’s not too late for LSU to do LSU baseball things as May melts toward June.