By Trey Mongrue
When I began the LSU/Kentucky preview last week, I openly gushed about just how good this Tiger baseball team is. Three games and a couple of inside-the-park home runs later, LSU dropped its first series of the season and relinquished its top spot in the polls.
Apparently, I didn’t learn my lesson though, because the following Wednesday at Zephyr Field for the Wally Pontiff Classic, I tweeted this during Mark Laird’s at-bat in the eighth inning:
If Laird can avoid the DP here, Bregman will have his chance to hit for the cycle. #LSU
— Trey Mongrue (@TreyMongrue) April 1, 2015
(Of course the second fastest player on the team who always hits to the opposite field grounds into a 4-6-3 double play. Because, baseball.)
So in an effort to not get the stink eye from Paul Mainieri every time I stick a recorder in his face, I will open this week’s preview by saying nothing other than LSU is playing Alabama this weekend. With my recent track record, something will happen and instead the Tigers will play Auburn.
Anyway, the Thursday-Friday-Saturday set will take place at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium while the renovations on Alabama’s Sewell-Thomas Stadium continue. I have to imagine that’s just fine with Mainieri.
Since taking over in 2007, the Hoover Met has been very kind to the LSU coach as the host site of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Under Mainieri, the Tigers are 22-4 there with five tournament championships. It won’t be exactly the same as before though, the fences have been pushed in a bit – the foul lines are now 335 feet instead of 340 feet and the power alleys have come down from 386 feet and 383 feet to a symmetrical 375 feet. It’s still 404 feet to center.
Park aside, it’s a fairly big series for both teams. Right now in the SEC, there’s Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and I guess we’ll throw Missouri in there, then a pool of teams fighting to join those at the top. Both LSU and Bama are in that pool and a series win would create some separation from the pack.
For the third consecutive weekend, the LSU bats will face a pitching staff whose team earned run average is in the bottom third of the conference. It doesn’t help the Crimson Tide that LSU continues to lead the SEC in hitting with a .329 team average and .499 slugging percentage.
With senior lefty, and Louisiana-native, Taylor Guilbeau headlining the rotation, the Tide always have a shot to get off on the right foot on Friday’s (err… Thursday in this case), but then it falls off pretty hard with Will Carter and his 5.91 ERA and 6/7 K/BB takes the mound in game three.
Bama’s bats don’t possess much power – only 11 homers on the year which is last in the SEC – but they do put the ball and play and get on base enough to pose a threat, thanks in large part to Casey Hughston (.392/.458/.647) and Mikey White (.367/.458/.622).
‘These Things are Too Hopeful’
Do you hear that?
It’s the people in Baton Rouge not bellyaching over not having Aaron Nola. In fact, the former LSU ace made a Spring Training spot start for the Phillies last week and pitched a scoreless four innings against basically the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup. Yet it barely made news down here, beyond fans simply being happy for Nola.
Somehow, the Tigers lost arguably the program’s best ever to toe the rubber and the pitching staff has not missed a beat.
Three words: Alexander. Craig. Lange.
Lange is living proof of why the Win/Loss statistics for pitchers are largely pointless. In two of his last three outings, the right-hander from Missouri tied the LSU freshman record with 13 strikeouts – in both instances, he didn’t get a decision.
Here are some more relevant stats from Lange:
|ERA||1.20 – Leads SEC|
|K/9||11.6 – Leads SEC|
|Fielding-Independent Pitching||1.59 – Leads LSU|
But beyond the numbers, all it takes is one look at Lange’s curveball and it immediately becomes apparent how unfair it is that LSU has this kid for two more years after this one. Actually, here it is on endless loop:
Now Lange has always had the curveball since developing it at Lee’s Summit West High School, but it was never that hard and it never had that much break. I asked Mainieri about it not too long ago and his words were, “Alan Dunn deserves a lot of credit for that.”
(LSU better hold on to Dunn as long as possible. He’s the best pitching coach in college baseball.)
But it’s not just the fact that Lange has a curveball that sits 80-83 MPH. What makes it nearly un-hittable is that he throws it out of the same arm slot that he throws his fastball.
As for that fastball, that’s his table-setter. Sure there will be a few instances where he’ll work backwards and start off with the curve, but for the most part, opposing hitters should expect Lange to go first-pitch fastball which can run anywhere from 93 to 97 MPH.
And that’s really the genius of Lange (and Dunn, who calls all of the pitches). Of the 176 batters he has faced this season, only three times has an opposing hitter gotten to a 2-0 count. Once Lange gets ahead with his fastball, it makes the curve that much more dangerous.
Just look at the green below the zone on the left graphic and compare it to the dark blue in the same area on the right. THAT’s how un-hittable Lange’s breaking ball is on the heels of his fastball.
Now, who knows if Lange really will be the “next Nola”. That can’t be decided for at least another season and a half of work. With that said, what he is doing right now is setting a standard that no freshman LSU pitcher has ever reached and it’s fun to watch.
No Longer a Myth
For the past two years at LSU, Chris Chinea’s power could be best compared to the legends of Bigfoot and the Lochness Monster.
There were whispers about how the catcher from Florida could mash, but not many saw it outside of a handful of batting practices. A large part of the problem was that Chinea was sporadically seeing the field, making just 35 starts and 73 total appearances in his first two years here, hitting just .260 in that span with 2 home runs and 11 extra base hits.
Despite losing out in the catcher battle to both Kade Scivicque and Mike Papierski last fall, Mainieri showed faith in Chinea’s bat by slotting him at the clean up spot as the designated hitter. To put it lightly, things didn’t quite work out there as Chinea posted a .277/.333/.301 slash line in the first 23 games of the season.
Sure, there was a point in the season where he was leading the team in batting average with runners in scoring position, but that was more because the spot he was hitting in led to many opportunities to hit in those situations. The fact of the matter is that it’s never good when your on-base percentage is higher than your slugging – especially in the clean up spot.
Chinea has seen a lot of changes since. While his slow start didn’t lead to the bench, it moved him down from clean up. He’s also the Tigers’ starting first baseman for the time being and while his glove is a tad inconsistent, his hitting over the last five games has finally matched the whispers.
There’s some discrepancy in the sample size, but take a look at his recent slugging chart.
Tallying just two extra base hits (both doubles) in his first 83 at-bats this season, Chinea has walloped nine in just his last 21 at-bats, which includes two home runs – an ironic inside-the-parker against Kentucky and a freaking moon shot against UL-Lafayette.
Chinea’s line now is a much more respectable .318/.361/.421 and he has all of the sudden become a strength at the bottom of LSU’s order compared to the glaring hole that he was at the heart of the order before.