With a Saturday night showdown between the Beavers and the Tigers looming, we got together with "PodKATT" down in Baton Rogue, the manager of AndTheValleyShook.com, our SB Nation brother blog, to exchange scouting reports. And sure enough, Oregon St. beat Belmont 2-1 and LSU downed Louisiana-Monroe 4-1, so the table is set.
You can read our answers to what the Tigers wanted to know here.
BTD: It appears the Tigers are usually able to put up a lot of runs. Will they play small ball if they find themselves in a close fight? Or try to break through with power?
PodKATT: LSU hitting has turned a bit schizophrenic as the season has worn on. With a few exceptions, LSU is certainly not a power hitting team these days, and while it occasionally sends the fan base into a rage, Coach Paul Mainieri isn't afraid to lay down a bunt in the first inning if he thinks the game is going to be a low scoring affair.
LSU has the threat of clutch power hitting when the game is on the line, but it's so inconsistent that it's not something the team relies on. The basic offensive strategy has been to get a few guys on and let the clean up hitters bring them home. When you've got a clean-up hitter batting nearly .500 like SEC Player of the Year Raph Rhymes, it makes for an easy way to score runs.
BTD: When the Tigers have fallen, what's usually been what went wrong? Pitching, defense, or hitting?
PodKATT: Early in the year, the offense just falling asleep at the plate after gaining a meager lead has gotten us into some serious trouble, but lately what's gone wrong has been relief pitching, specifically our formerly rock steady closer Nick Goody. He's lost some effectiveness in the end of the season and has now blown 3 saves in as many weeks, including the knockout blow in the SEC Tournament. If the offense doesn't get him a comfortable lead to work with, he plays tight and that could make for a serious problem.
BTD: Mississippi St. seems to have been able to figure out the Tigers to a much better degree than anyone else. What did the Bulldogs do that made such a difference?
PodKATT: Though we did take the SEC opening weekend series from M State at home earlier in the season, the Bulldog team we ran into in Hoover last week was something else.
Facing SEC pitcher of the Year Stratton in game 1, a very dominate strike thrower, without countering with Gausman almost sunk us from the on set. The second game in Hoover was the LSU offense getting complacent after an early small lead and just coasting towards a finish when M State was clearly not going to go down quietly.
Our relief had an uncharacteristically bad day and with no run support M State was able to power through to a victory. Hopefully, the team won't have the same issues in the post season.
BTD: We have heard that LSU is saving ace Kevin Gausman for Saturday, which makes sense, as the team that gets off to a 2-0 start probably wins the regional. If the series reaches a decisive Monday game, who will LSU turn to?
PodKATT: That is a very interesting question, and I'm at a loss for an answer. LSU never really developed a 4th starter this season, with midweek games being handled (by design) by a starter du jour for an inning or 2, followed by nearly the entire bullpen cast.
We have known that Nola was going to go on Friday, but with no restrictions he probably won't be available by Monday. Eades will get the Sunday start, which leaves no one I'm thrilled about seeing in a win or go home type game. My best guess would be Kurt McCune, a former starter last year and early this season who worked himself into bullpen duty. It makes for a nice redemption story on paper, but I'd much rather we not have to go to Monday.
BTD: Beyond Gausman, is there a particular aspect of the game where LSU is especially dominant? And what's the Tigers' biggest Achilles' heel?
PodKATT: Gausman's control and particularly his K count is a very dominate part of this team and we'll lean on it heavily in Game 2, but infield defense has been a nice point of pride this season, particularly the stellar work from Austin Nola at SS. He's a defensive highlight machine, and has been so for so long that fans take him for granted sometimes. If Gausman or any pitcher isn't feeling it, relying on the D to make a play is usually a successful backup plan.
The Achilles' heel is base running, and it's maddening. I can't tell you how many times a small rally gets snuffed out due to an inexplicable base running mistake. At first we thought they were just running through signs, but now the blame is falling on 3B coach Javi Sanchez. If you're patient, you can let LSU run it's self out of an inning.
BTD: How in the world has Raph Rymes managed to hit .459 for the season? Wouldn't most teams be pitching around, or at least very carefully to him by now?
PodKATT: Rhymes swing is what's given him the high BA. It was more expressly detailed by an ESPNU broadcast earlier in the season, but the just of it is that he is able to keep his bat flat through a swing longer than most, which is giving him a better shot at making contact.
He keeps getting thrown to because he's really not a power hitter, despite what the numbers say. Rhymes is really good at putting the ball in play and most teams think they can defend around that. By the end of a game, he'll get his free pass.
BTD: Finally, did uncharacteristically missing the post-season last year produce any unrest in Tigerland? Or just a very high degree of re-intensification for this season?
PodKATT: You bet it did. LSU may be unique in the world of college baseball where the sport really is #2, behind only football. Everyone follows the team and excellence is not demanded, but expected. We fired a coach who consistently got LSU to Omaha because we kept going 2-and-Cue.
Last year's lack of any post season was a big red flag, but cooler heads prevailed and Mainieri, as he has proven in the past, was able to make a significant adjustment to the coaching staff with the hiring of pitching coach Alan Dunn from the Orioles organization, and instant results are being seen. It's no shame to say the Bertman years have got us spoiled, but I think the fan base has calmed down just a bit from the lofty expectations. We still expect to win it all every year, but now there is less rage if we fall short.
Thanks to PodKATT for sharing his insights, and helping put together things this weekend! This has the making of a great regional by the time its done.