How concerned should we be about No. 1 LSU's pitching ... after Paul Skenes?
LSU has been the No. 1 baseball team in the country since the preseason.
The Tigers (29-7) have remained the perceived team to beat nationally even though their 9-5 SEC record is just 2nd-best in the West Division and 6th-best in the conference.
That’s partly because of the lofty ranking of each of their first 5 SEC opponents and the fact that LSU won each series (2-1) except for splitting the rain-shorted series at No. 6 South Carolina.
The SEC series wins came against teams ranked at the time No. 11 (Texas A&M), No. 6 (Arkansas), No. 11 (Tennessee) and No. 12 (Kentucky). The Tigers play their first series against an unranked SEC opponent this weekend when they visit Ole Miss, which happens to be the defending national champion.
LSU’s remaining conference series are against teams that are neither ranked nor reigning national champions – Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia.
The Tigers have the top scoring team in the country (10.4 runs per game), leading 2nd-year coach Jay Johnson to say “we are never out of a game.” They feature arguably the NCAA’s best slugger (Tommy White) and best hitter (Dylan Crews, who is batting .500).
They also feature a bona fide ace in right-hander Paul Skenes (6-1, 1.69 ERA), a transfer from Air Force. Skenes and Crews have a chance to become the first set of college teammates to be selected No. 1 and No. 2 in the same draft.
But after that, LSU may or may not have what it takes to reach the College World Series for 19th time and 1st time since 2017.
The Tigers’ pitching after Skenes and their fielding, which was the worst in the SEC last season but is somewhat improved this season, could be troublesome when the expectation is that the team is destined for a trip to Omaha and a lengthy stay there.
Johnson said he “loves” the fact that the Tigers have the 2nd-fewest losses in the country and still “have room to get better.”
“When we play good defense, which we do most of the time,” Johnson said, “it helps our pitchers and we’re hard to score on. That’s a good combination.”
But LSU pitchers not named Skenes allowed 17 earned runs in 14 innings against South Carolina. In the 2 games in which Skenes did not pitch, Tennessee scored 18 runs, Texas A&M scored 15 (2 unearned) and Kentucky scored 19 (6 unearned) last weekend in Baton Rouge.
The most recent series is a useful case study. After the Tigers won Skenes’ start by the mercy rule (16-6 in 8 innings), they got outscored 13-10 in Game 2 and won 7-6 in the rubber game. Three errors contributed to 6unearned runs in the loss.
“When you’re playing the schedule that we’ve played, when you make some of those mistakes, they’re just going to get magnified and they’re going to cost you a game,” Johnson said.
“That’s what happened on Saturday. We made 3 errors. We walked some guys (5), made it harder on ourselves and still won the game. That doesn’t make the walks OK.”
Johnson said the Tigers focus on allowing “less than 6 free bases a game – walks, hit by pitches, stolen bases” – believing that doing so means “you have a great chance to win.”
He also took some satisfaction in his team’s ability to minimize the damage done by Kentucky’s scoring opportunities in the Game 3 victory, allowing just 1 multi-run inning (3 in the 7th) while holding the Wildcats to single runs in the 4th, 5th and 6th.
“That’s how we survived last year,” Johnson said, “keeping innings at 1 run.”
Johnson said he “definitely has confidence” in No. 2 starter Ty Floyd (5-0, 3.92) and No. 3 starter Christian Little (2-1, 3.86), though he added that changes to the post-Skenes rotation remain a possibility.
Johnson knows that Skenes is likely to get the Tigers off to good starts, not only on weekends, but also in the series of postseason tournaments that lie ahead. And the offense is going to give them a chance even if the rest of the pitching staff and the fielding falter.
“This team knows it’s going to win when it plays well,” Johnson said.
He quoted legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Championship teams master eliminating mistakes.”
LSU has 19 more games before the SEC Tournament begins to try and become an even more complete team than it already is.
“That’s what we want to keep doing,” Johnson said, “win games while we’re making mistakes and clean them up as we go.”
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