By Trey Mongrue
Through its first 40 games of the 2014 baseball season, Ole Miss’ offense had plated at least one run, win or lose. Through LSU’s first five Southeastern Conference series of that same season, the Tigers have had the their troubles in game three, posting an underwhelming 1-4-1 and winless when on the road.
Naturally, the script for last Saturday’s rubber match in Oxford was all but set. Ole Miss was going to score, and LSU was going to lose.
But as baseball has shown us on many occasions, it cares little for scripts.
For LSU, a trend-defying 2-0 win to secure the series may have uplifted the Tigers to heights that may have been viewed as unattainable a little less than a month ago.
“This game was a pivotal win in our season,” head coach Paul Mainieri said afterwards.
It was so much fun (he typed sarcastically) to psychoanalyze just what was wrong with LSU baseball after a sweep at the hands of Florida dropped the Tigers to the bottom of the Western Division. They have since seemingly broken away from that anchor and now find themselves in prime position for the program’s third consecutive division championship and fourth in the past six seasons.
After getting through a handful of tough road series against ranked opponents, LSU is still breathing, sitting just a game and a half back of Alabama with a very manageable schedule from here on out.
Ultimately, the West could be settled one way or the other when the Crimson Tide come to Baton Rouge in three weeks, but in the six SEC games before that, LSU may have a chance to make Alabama’s slight lead disappear.
In the next two weekends, LSU hosts Tennessee and travels west to Texas A&M – two teams with losing records in conference. Alabama on the other hand has to go through the upper-echelon of the East as it heads to South Carolina this weekend and welcomes Florida right after that.
“All of the goals that we set at the beginning of the year are still right in front of us.” – LSU head coach Paul Mainieri
Granted, that aforementioned script can easily flip once again, but you have to think that Mainieri likes where his team is positioned at the moment.
All things considered, it really is astounding that LSU is this close to the top at this point in the season, when you figure in that the everyday starting lineup is still kind of unsettled, the third spot in the rotation has largely been a bullpen committee effort, and the unquestioned team leader has been slumping at the plate since the start of conference play.
That’s what makes LSU so dangerous at the moment. Even with that list, it is still within striking distance. What happens if Alex Bregman shakes his slump, Jake Fraley solidifies himself as an everyday player or Alden Cartwright proves to be the missing cog in the rotation?
The answer is that the rest of the SEC is in trouble.
Of course, as Mainieri has maintained since the second he took the job, success at LSU is measured beyond division championships.
With this series win, LSU moved up to 13 in the RPI and added a series win on the road against a top 10 RPI team and are in the mix for its third straight national seed and an inside track for a return trip to Omaha.
Here is where the winning the West becomes even more important. Since 2006, the SEC’s two division winners have been rewarded with national seeds seven times. Considering that the conference RPI is first in the country, it’s a safe bet that the selection committee will continue that trend when the brackets come out in May.
For some of the shortcomings that LSU’s offense has experience throughout this season, the pitching has been able to save face for the most part. Obviously, it helps to have an almost assured win every time Aaron Nola steps on the mound.
Mainieri having that silver bullet in Nola in his chamber makes the Tigers very dangerous in the Regional and Super Regional format, regardless of how they finishes the regular season and the SEC Tournament.
However, this is looking way too far ahead into the future. Things are looking up for the Tigers as they find themselves ranked No. 10 or better in every major poll – the first time since three losses at Florida.
But nothing is given in the SEC.
There is a lot of parity in the conference this season with first place and seventh place in the overall standings separated by a mere three games. A bad series against the Volunteers this weekend and LSU is back to where it was a month ago.
“We only have 14 games remaining in the regular season, and each one is extremely important to us,” said Mainieri on Monday. “All of the goals that we set at the beginning of the year are still right in front of us.”
Again, this is a game that can reward, confound, enrage and surely captivate. LSU has experienced a little bit of everything this season. But as this season hits the home stretch, it still feels like this team’s best is still to come.
Best of the Rest
Once again, the SEC is proving to be the class of college baseball. In the latest USA Today Coaches Poll, eight SEC are in the Top 25 – the most of any other conference.
#8 South Carolina
#13 Ole Miss
#22 Mississippi State