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LSU head coach Paul Mainieri in the dugout against Vanderbilt, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Alex Box Stadium on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

Before LSU’s baseball practice Monday afternoon, coach Paul Mainieri stood behind home plate and faced his players. They sat in rows against the backstop, gathered for the first time since they were swept by Vanderbilt. 

Mainieri tried to maintain positivity while being realistic. He explained how LSU couldn’t reverse its season in one day, or even two. The Tigers needed to reset their goals, focus on methodical, daily improvement and salvage something over the next two months. He compared their athletic struggles to difficult situations they’ll face later in life. 

“You can lay there and be defeated, or you can get back up, as hard as it is, and keep fighting,” Mainieri said earlier that day, previewing his message. “If you do that, eventually you'll have good things happen to you.”

The conversation happened as LSU reached the halfway point of the regular season, a convenient time to take stock. Over their first 28 games, the Tigers are 17-11, a disappointing overall record fueled by their 1-8 start to Southeastern Conference play, the program’s worst since 1969.

Baseball America projected LSU last week as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, and that was before the Tigers got swept for the second straight weekend, something that hadn’t occurred since 2010. Baseball America hasn’t updated its projections. At this point though, LSU has to fight for a postseason appearance.

The second half of the schedule begins Tuesday night against McNeese State. Mainieri hopes something positive will happen, giving LSU a glimmer of momentum it can carry into its weekend series at Kentucky, the first this season against an unranked SEC team. The Tigers then play No. 5 South Carolina, No. 8 Ole Miss and No. 2 Arkansas the next three weeks.

“We've obviously dug ourselves a hole in the SEC, and it's a big hole,” Mainieri said. “We're not going to make up 10 games in one weekend or one day, so let's take it one game at a time, and let's see what we can do in the second half.”

For LSU to climb out from the bottom of the SEC West and make the conference tournament, it will have to improve some troubling offensive trends that either suddenly appeared or got much worse against SEC pitching. 

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Within conference games, the Tigers rank last in batting average (.201), on-base percentage (.283), runs scored (27) and a couple other categories, such as hits and RBIs. They lead the league in strikeouts with 99. LSU recorded four hits in all its games against Vanderbilt. 

“One night, all four hits were by true freshmen,” Mainieri said. He paused and chuckled. “Yay for small victories. To mount any kind of significant offense, you're going to have to do more than that.”

The sparse offensive production has sunk LSU in close games. Every year, Mainieri tells his teams one-run and two-run games will define their season. As they struggle at the plate, especially with runners on base, the Tigers are 3-4 in games decided by one run. Three losses came against SEC teams. LSU has lost five conference games by three runs or less. Another was 3-1 in the eighth inning.

“I believe we have a really good team, and we know that we are really good,” junior left fielder Gavin Dugas said. “At the same time, we are really young. I'm not trying to make excuses at all, but we will figure it out. It's going to happen, and when it does, it'll be good. We'll get on the right track eventually.” 

The pitching staff hasn’t been stellar, either. Though it has kept most of the games close, the staff has a 5.74 ERA in conference games (4.45 overall), which ranks ninth in the league. And now they’ll have to play the rest of the season without junior starter Jaden Hill, who has a torn UCL. 

Moving forward, Mainieri intends to make a few personnel decisions. He said LSU will shorten its bullpen in close games, turning to senior Devin Fontenot and freshman Ty Floyd after the sixth inning.

And on Tuesday night, Mainieri adjusted the lineup, starting junior center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo, who returned from a hamstring strain, and using LSU’s most offensively productive group as he continues to evaluate LSU’s players, trying to help them finish the season better than they started.

“Let's experience some success,” Mainieri said, “and let's move through the rest of the schedule and see how high we can finish.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com