Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE – What a Happy Easter it was for the LSU baseball team on Sunday.
The No. 7 Tigers enjoyed a day off after taking two of three in dramatic, clutch fashion at Ole Miss – the top hitting team in the Southeastern Conference at .310 – from Thursday through Saturday. The Rebels hopefully had better luck finding Easter eggs on Sunday than they did placing baseballs in the outfield grass the three previous days. LSU pitching held Ole Miss to a .227 average in winning 2-0 on Saturday and 4-3 Thursday night in 13 innings around a 5-1 loss on Friday.
The Tigers (30-10 overall) moved into sole possession of second place in the SEC West at 10-7-1 behind Alabama and pushed Ole Miss (30-11) into third in the loss column at 10-8.
Often booed by the raucous crowds at a mostly full Swayze Field stadium (10,323 capacity), LSU took two from a team that entered the series 20-2 at home. The combined shutout by LSU first-time SEC starter Alden Cartwright, Hunter Devall, Parker Bugg and Kurt McCune on Saturday was the first served to Ole Miss this season. The Rebels came into the series third in the SEC in scoring with six runs a game.
“It was just a bad day offensively, which is not like us,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “I think if you saw us for the first time this weekend, I don’t think you would say we played poorly, but we just lacked that punch. That’s not us.”
Great pitching, and/or a ridiculously large ballpark with an invisible dome like TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., often makes the other team lose its identity. Remember LSU at the College World Series last year?
The Tigers rolled into Omaha with its best pre-CWS record ever at 57-9 with a .308 team batting average, six .300 hitters and 46 home runs, including 15 by Mason Katz. They were scoring six runs a game. Under The Dome at Omaha, they scored three in two games and were out of there as if Stephen King was throwing horror.
UCLA, meanwhile, held the Tigers to one run (a Katz homer) on five hits in its CWS opener and went on to win the national championship despite hitting .248 on the season without one .300 hitter, one .290 hitter or anyone with more than five homers.
LSU does not have the team it had last year. It will not win 57 games. It lacks a Katz and may not have anyone hit 10 home runs. But the Tigers may well have a team this season more suited for TD Ameritrade.
The pitching staff could end up being better overall than last season if some of these new arms like Joe Broussard (1-0, 0.42 ERA, 8 saves), Bugg (2-1, 1.07 ERA, 2 saves), Devall (1-0, 1.17 ERA), Cartwright (1-0, 1.74 ERA), Zac Person (1-1, 2.84 ERA) and Henri Faucheux (3-0, 2.29 ERA) continue to blossom. The ERA is already a bit better at 2.36 this season than last year’s 2.41.
Broussard will not get 24 saves, but he is the Tigers’ version of UCLA’s David Berg.
LSU has been winning in UCLA-like fashion often this season. The Tigers improved to 10-4 in two-run games over the weekend. LSU is also 4-1 in games in which three runs or less or scored.
LSU is very fast in the outfield. Right fielder Mark Laird of Monroe practically won the game Saturday with two excellent run-and-catch plays. The Tigers do not have a dominant stud hammer at the plate, but they do have six regular players batting .275 or better. In this age small bats and dead balls, that’s not bad. They also seem to have clutch hitters.
Meanwhile, Aaron Nola at 7-1 with an 0.88 ERA is the nation’s best pitcher as well as LSU’s version of UCLA’s Nick Vander Tuig. Jared Poche (6-3, 2.59) could end up as LSU’s Adam Plutko.
The Bruins finished third in the Pacific-10 last year at 21-9. LSU should finish no worse than third in the SEC.
The most difficult portion of the Tigers’ SEC schedule is over. LSU has already played SEC overall leader Florida as well as Vanderbilt and Georgia – both around .500 - in the East. The Tigers are done with Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas, which are all either above .500 or in that .500 range in the West.
Other than SEC West leader Alabama at home on May 9-11, which could be more interesting than the over-covered NFL Draft that weekend, the Tigers’ remaining league schedule will be against bottom feeders.
Tennessee, 6-11 in the league entering Sunday play, will be in this weekend. The Tigers then go to Texas A&M, which was 7-10 entering Sunday play. After the Alabama series, LSU closes the regular season at Auburn, which was also 7-10 going into Sunday.
A 40-win overall regular season record with about a 19-10 league finish is probable. Fueled by a pair of gutsy wins in Oxford over the weekend along with a walk-off, one-run victory over Arkansas last weekend has LSU looking like LSU.