HOOVER, Ala. — LSU’s tale of pitching woe this season has been exhaustively documented.
It’s not just the print and online stories and TV coverage. There is rumor of a “tear in my beer” country and western song by new American Idol winner Laine Hardy in the works. And HBO is negotiating to buy the rights for an angst-filled miniseries to fill the void left by “Game of Thrones.”
But here at the Southeastern Conference tournament, the gloom has lifted. Pitching, to a significant and timely degree, has lifted LSU into its customary berth in the semifinals and looking more and more dangerous with the NCAA tournament looming next weekend.
The state of LSU’s pitching staff for Friday’s elimination game rematch with Mississippi State was rough. The Tigers were left with few options but to go with midweek starter/reliever Clay Moffitt in hopes that he could help hold the Bulldogs down long enough for LSU’s offense to come to the rescue.
He and relievers Aaron George and Chase Costello were more than up to the task in a 12-2 game that ended after seven innings because of the tournament’s 10-run rule. Stark contrast to the 17-inning, 6 hour, 43-minute telethon that State won 6-5 just after 3 a.m. Thursday morning.
“I’m glad we just had to play seven innings,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Every inning helps.”
Every win does, too.
Now 37-23, with 19 of those wins coming against teams in the current RPI top 50, the Tigers appear to have sewn up a regional at Alex Box Stadium next week. That's something that seemed out of reach a couple of weeks ago when LSU was mired in a five-game losing streak.
“We always felt good about ourselves. It’s those outside the program who expect us to win every game,” Mainieri said with a velvet-gloved jab at his and his team’s critics this year.
When you win, especially for the third time in five games against a top-four RPI team like Mississippi State, you can volley one back over the net at your detractors.
Assuming now that LSU is going to be at home in the NCAA tournament next week as the regional No. 1 seed, the Tigers have options as to what to do with a pitching staff that, as Les Miles might have said, is coming to health.
Those options start with freshman Landon Marceaux.
While the entire LSU baseball-loving world has been anxiously waiting for fellow freshman Cole Henry to return to the mound and return to form from a month’s arm-trouble exile, Marceaux was on a faster track from his earlier arm issues. He turned in a pair of promising outings against Auburn, one at home in Baton Rouge last week and the second here Thursday.
Marceaux was gone by the time LSU scored those two shocking wild pitch runs to win 4-3, but his 6 2/3 innings of seven-hit ball (allowing two unearned runs) were the patience-inducing influence the Tigers needed until all hell broke loose in the ninth. Not that Auburn hits anything like the 1927 Yankees, but it was a clutch pitching performance when LSU needed it to stay alive in this tournament and keep alive its hopes of being an NCAA regional host.
Almost as impactful was the youthful Marceaux’s attitude in the postgame news conference.
“I felt like I really needed to carry this team today,” Marceaux said. “Just get on my back and then let’s go. I go as deep and as hard as I can. That’s all I was trying to do today.”
I don’t know if Mainieri was smiling on the podium when Marceaux said that, but he had to like what he heard.
Given his most recent starts, Marceaux looks like the guy LSU should be slotting in for its pivotal second game in the regional, a game in which the Tigers will be trying to take command with a 2-0 record or survive a first-day upset.
LSU could then come back with a fully rested Henry (he started Tuesday against South Carolina) in the first game of the regional in Baton Rouge with a fully rested bullpen behind him. You can also make a good argument for starting a fully rested Eric Walker, too.
Then again, if LSU somehow upsets No. 1 Vanderbilt on Saturday, Henry might be in line to start Sunday’s championship game.
Crazy to think, isn’t it, considering where the Tigers just came from.
“We’re still here!” shortstop Josh Smith yelled in the dugout afterward. “We’re still here!”
Call Laine’s people and tell them those lyrics may have to be tweaked a bit.