By Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
BATON ROUGE - LSU crashed through the pressure barrier Wednesday night just in time for a significant series with Southeastern Conference West leader Mississippi State that opens Friday night.
Former Tigers baseball coach Skip Bertman spoke of it often. The pressure barrier could be the difference between making it to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series or not, or winning the national championship or not.
For 20th-ranked LSU, which had lost four straight before beating McNeese State 10-3 Wednesday night, it was just about feeling confident again amid struggles to score and even hit.
“We actually started to look like a decent ball club there at the end,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, whose team dropped three at Florida last weekend to fall into last place in the SEC West at 3-5-1.
The Tigers (21-8-1) host No. 9 Mississippi State (20-10, 6-3 SEC) in a three-game series beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday on Cox Sports Television. The Bulldogs have returned much of their 2013 team that pushed the pressure barrier all the way to the championship series in Omaha before losing two straight to UCLA.
“They don’t really have any weaknesses,” Mainieri said. “They’ve got a real strong club in every area.”
LSU’s strength continues to be junior right-handed ace Aaron Nola (5-1), who leads the SEC with a 0.55 earned run average and with 61 strikeouts. Where Mainieri will use his best weapon was the source of consternation on Thursday as the coach said late Thursday he would push Nola’s start to Saturday from his customary Friday slot because he wanted Nola to have his usual six days of rest. Nola had to pitch Saturday a week ago instead of Friday because the Tigers’ game at Florida was rained out. Then later Thursday, Mainieri decided he would start Nola Friday after all. Stay tuned.
The starting pitching carousel started earlier Thursday when State coach John Cohen said he would start junior left-hander Ross Mitchell (5-1, 1.55 ERA) Friday instead of previous Friday night starter Preston Brown (3-1, 1.95 ERA), a sophomore right-hander, because Brown has some shoulder issues. Brown may start Sunday, Cohen said. LSU’s starting pitcher for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game is to be announced. And who is on first.
Freshman left-hander Jared Poche (5-2, 2.61 ERA) is expected to start Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game for LSU against junior right-hander Trevor Fitts (2-1, 3.09 ERA).
A former strength of the Tigers showed signs of life on Wednesday. Sophomore All-American shortstop Alex Bregman was 0-for-14 and 4-for-41 before launching a three-run home run through the pressure barrier for a 5-3 lead in the sixth inning against McNeese.
“I was just trying to play the game and have fun playing the game that I love,” Bregman said. Mainieri put the hit-and-run on for Bregman.
“When he just wants us to go up there and hit, he tells us to hit and run,” Bregman said. “And he did that for me, and it helped me simplify it.”
LSU scored five more in the seventh inning.
“Finally, everybody just kind of loosened up and started enjoying playing again,” Mainieri said.
The Tigers totaled 10 hits in all, including a two-run home run by Sean McMullen to tie the score 2-2 in the third.
“I think Alex is just the heartbeat of our lineup,” McMullen said. “He can really spark this lineup. And he did it last year, too. He’s the key to the lineup.”
Mainieri thinks he will need Bregman and others to continue what happened Wednesday into the weekend against State.
“We’re going to have to play our best,” he said, “to have a chance to have success against these guys.”
BOUMAN PROGRESS: LSU junior left-hander Kyle Bouman pitched an inning of relief Wednesday, striking out a batter and not allowing a base runner. It was his first outing since injuring his ankle when he stepped on a baseball at practice on March 17. Bouman (3-1, 2.17 ERA) opened the season as LSU’s Sunday starter.
“What I saw was pretty good,” Mainieri said. “Now whether or not he can pitch extended or not, I don’t know yet. We’ll have to see.”