HOOVER, Ala . — On a gorgeous Friday afternoon at Samford University’s ballpark, LSU coach Paul Mainieri is throwing batting practice.
One by one, his players take their turns in the batting cage. The results are like someone replaying a YouTube video: line drives laced across the green grass of the outfield, home runs mortared into the faultless blue sky before landing in the pines ringing the outfield fence.
For the Tigers, the past six weeks’ worth of games have pretty much looked like the same thing.
A veteran lineup mentored by new hitting coach Andy Cannizaro, a disciple of aggressive hitting and base running, has resulted in a potent alchemy: the best offense in the Southeastern Conference.
LSU leads the SEC in batting average (.321), on pace for its best hitting season since 2004. The Tigers also lead in runs (414), hits (682), RBIs (381) and doubles (134) and are one off the league lead with 21 triples. LSU’s first hit in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinal against Florida (does even the most devoted Gator chomper think the Tigers will be no-hit?) will be its 1,000th total base of the season — another SEC-leading stat.
The past six weeks, LSU’s hitting has been state of the art. Since rapping out 13 hits April 15 in an 11-2 win over Lamar, the Tigers have recorded double-digit hits in 18 of their past 20 games.
“We’re locking in every pitch,” second baseman Jared Foster said. At .294, he’s the only LSU starter not hitting over .300, but he’s 5-for-8 here with a home run and three doubles.
“Hitting can be contagious,” he added. “One through nine, we’re hitting it pretty good.”
The Tigers caught the hitting bug from Cannizaro as soon as fall practice opened in early October.
“Since the first day he got here, he’s been the most aggressive-minded hitting coach I’ve ever been around,” said senior Chris Sciambra, who’s hitting .319. “The first day, he was telling guys to see how far they can hit it in the bleachers. We were used to hearing, ‘Work on your swing; hit line drives.’ The first day, he’s telling us to hack and see how far we can hit it.”
Next, Cannizaro was telling them how far to run.
The Tigers steal bases, steal bases, steal bases. If people weren’t watching, they’d probably try to start an inning with a runner at second before he even takes an at-bat. LSU leads the SEC steals, too, with 110 (Vandy came into Friday second with 85), and, yes, is third in being caught stealing with 31.
The Cannizaro attitude, endorsed by Mainieri, is to be ultra aggressive all the time, even when the time-worn baseball rules say no.
Two outs and a runner at second? The Tigers say go. Sometimes it looks oh so clever. Sometimes it looks like a car trying to beat a train at a crossing. But say this for LSU this season: The Tigers have been true to their larcenous hearts all season long.
“It’s a more risky type of offense,” Mainieri said. “Guys get thrown out and people say, ‘Oh, you’re running the bases crazy.’ You can’t play that way and not have some risk. But it’s the way I believe life is: If there’s no risk, there’s no great reward.”
The reward has been an approach that begets more hits, which in turn begets more opportunities to run and score.
“It kind of feeds off itself,” said Cannizaro, who embodied the way he has asked the Tigers to hit and run as a player at Tulane. “The more guys we get on base and the more times we run, when you’re a running team the catcher and pitcher don’t want you to steal. So essentially you’re getting fastballs to hit to throw guys out. In return, we want to hunt the fastball, so the more bases we steal, the more fastballs we get and the more hitting we get to do.”
The first inning of Thursday’s game against Arkansas was the ultimate expression of LSU’s offensive theory. The Tigers hit and ran, and the Razorbacks, one of the nation’s hottest teams, came unhinged. Arkansas committed three errors in the inning, two by catcher Carson Shaddy trying to throw Tigers out at second. LSU lead 4-0 after one and 6-0 after two en route to a 10-5 victory.
“This may sound arrogant, but we were really putting on a clinic out there,” Mainieri said. “We put so much pressure on them with the quality of our at-bats, the stealing of the bases, the hustle around the bases. I just thought we had them reeling.”
The result has been a baseball facsimile of a 3-point shooting team. It’s easy to jack one up from long range early in the season, but will it be harder to push the aggression button now that the games count for so much?
Cannizaro says no.
“I don’t think you do anything differently at the end of the season,” he said. “This is why we’re good, so we continue to bring it to the park every single day.”
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.