By Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
BATON ROUGE The LSU baseball team is apparently back where it belongs soaring to another Southeastern Conference Tournament title and perhaps more behind more characteristically strong offense. It also may have a No. 3 starting pitcher again.
Junior left-hander Kyle Bouman, who began the season as the team's third starter, is back in that role after a significant absence and will start Saturday at noon when No. 3 seed LSU (42-14-1) plays in the first semifinal of the SEC Tournament against No. 7 seed Arkansas (37-22) in Hoover, Ala., on ESPN News.
Arkansas, which fell to LSU 7-2 on Thursday, and Ole Miss, which lost two of three to LSU in Oxford, Miss., last month, met at 3 p.m. Friday in an elimination game. An LSU win Saturday advances the team to the SEC Tournament championship game at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN2. The Tigers have won four of the previous six SEC Tournaments (2013, 2010, 2009 and 2008).
'It feels awesome to be in the rotation again,' Bouman said on Monday in Baton Rouge before the Tigers departed for Hoover. 'I'm just really focused on getting through the tournament and getting some more wins for us.'
Bouman (4-2, 2.44 ERA, 8 starts) won his first three starts of the season at New Orleans and at home against Toledo and Yale in February and March to win a spot in the rotation with ace Aaron Nola and freshman sensation Jared Poche. He lost his first SEC start, 4-2, at Vanderbilt on March 15 when he allowed four hits and three runs in four innings. On the following Monday, Bouman accidentally stepped on a baseball during practice and sprained his ankle. He did not pitch again until April 2 against McNeese State for a third of an inning in relief.
Bouman returned to the rotation against Mississippi State on April 6, but lasted just three and one-third innings in a no-decision. He started again against Arkansas a week later, but he allowed four runs on three hits in one inning to take the loss and fall to 3-2 on the season with a 3.24 ERA, marking the first time his ERA went over 3.00.
Freshman Alden Cartwright (1-1, 2.12 ERA) replaced Bouman in the rotation, but was up and down as the third starter, and Bouman got another chance last Saturday at Auburn. Bouman held the Tigers to one run on four hits and one walk in five innings for the 8-1 victory.
'I think Kyle Bouman emerged today,' LSU coach Paul Mainieri said after the game. 'Of all the good things that happened today, that was the most important thing. In order to advance beyond the NCAA Regional round, you have to be able to win three games in a weekend. If we're hosting a regional, and we get to play a four seed, who can pitch that opening game of the weekend?'
LSU will learn if it will be one of 16 NCAA Regional hosts at 8 p.m. Sunday. The complete 64-team bracket with pairings and the top eight national seeds will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday on ESPNU.
Bouman hopes to close the season as LSU's third starter.
'I felt really good being able to start again and get deep into the game and take some pressure off our bullpen at Auburn,' he said. 'My ankle has felt fine. It's not too big of a difference from when I first came back. I'm just pitching better.'
Bouman also liked the eight runs and 11 hits his team put up at Auburn. The Tigers' 12 hits in the Arkansas win on Thursday marked the sixth consecutive game LSU has had 11 or more hits in a game. Over that span, LSU is outscoring opponents 74-7 on 88 hits.
'I always thought our offense would come around,' Bouman said. 'This is a great time for us to be playing our best baseball.'