Dig Baton Rouge

Closing Time: LSU baseball must fine a closer to make it back to Omaha

The average fan would probably tell you that the LSU baseball team’s biggest hole in 2016 is inexperience in its batting order.

But I would beg to differ.

Yes, the Tigers are young all over the diamond. Yes, the team must fi nd a way to replace almost all of its offense from last season before rolling into conference play.

But no, I don’t think that’s the team’s biggest question mark in the earliest weeks of the season, and honestly, I don’t even think it’s very close.

I think LSU needs to get its bullpen situation sorted out.

Until they do, I can’t say with a straight face that the Tigers are one of the top teams in the country.

The LSU bullpen is a revolving door of question marks right now, and it remains to be seen how the team will be able to withstand top-flight competition – especially on the road.

Jesse Stallings was LSU’s closer for a short while last year, but he was unable to hold the job for the entire season. So far, he’s been solid in 2016, but he was solid to open 2015, as well, before things fell apart. I think Tigers coach Paul Mainieri would like for Stallings to be the guy, but he’ll proceed with caution.

If it’s not Stallings, then what else do you have?

Parker Bugg has stuff so good that he will pitch professionally, but he’s inconsistent. Alden Cartwright, Russell Reynolds, Hunter Devall and Hunter Newman all have experience, but not in the closer’s role.

The rest of the bullpen is inexperienced and consists of guys who are freshmen or underclassmen.

Of course, the optimistic fan would say that none of this is any concern, because we often see baseball clubs patch their bullpen together throughout the season – especially at the professional level.

But for LSU, we shouldn’t be so sure.

Pitching depth has been a problem in Baton Rouge for a while – an ailment that has plagued the team for a couple seasons.

Remember the 2014 Baton Rouge NCAA Regional when LSU simply ran out of pitchers in its embarrassing loss to Houston? I sure do. That was one of the low points of Mainieri’s career at the helm of the program.

What about last season? Sure, LSU made it to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, but that pitching staff  wasn’t deep either once you got past Jared Poche’ and Alex Lange in the rotation. Texas Christian made the LSU pitchers work in Omaha, and they just didn’t have the chops. It was a thorough beating.

This year’s group returned a lot of those players, including all of the names we mentioned above, but the group’s first big tests haven’t exactly been sparkling.

On opening night, the relief pitchers let up two runs in the 10th inning, which nearly cost LSU the game. Against Lamar, the wheels came off, and the Tigers lost an eight-run lead before losing the game.

That shouldn’t ever happen for LSU baseball against any Southland Conference opponent, but it did, so now the challenge is to move on from it and become better.

The Tigers have to use non-conference play to figure out whom Mainieri can trust in late-inning situations so that the team can be well-equipped to push forward in close SEC games.

Failure to find the right guys could be what prevents LSU from being great in 2016.

Righting a struggling bullpen will be huge for Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn if the Tigers want to return to Omaha.

Photo courtesy of LSU Sports Information

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