Monday, April 20, 2009

Tigers Lose Weekend Series to Vols

Exactly a year ago -- April 20, 2008 -- Paul Mainieri and the LSU Tigers left Alex Box Stadium after losing a home SEC series they felt they should have won.

Then they went out and won the final 16 games of the regular season to launch a magic carpet ride that didn't stop until the College World Series.

Flash forward 364 days to a new season, a new Alex Box Stadium, a different home SEC series and similarly frustrating results. Mainieri looked to the past for inspiration before leaving the ballpark Sunday night and heading out toward the future: a future with 16 regular-season games remaining.

"This is when we started our winning streak last year," Mainieri said. "This is when we caught fire last year, so maybe that will happen now starting Tuesday."

The situations are not perfect parallels. A year ago LSU lost the first two games of the Georgia series, then tied with the Bulldogs in the final game. That left the Tigers at 6-11-1 in the SEC, fifth place in the Western Division and 11th place overall.

This LSU team entered the weekend ranked No. 1 nationally and, for a time, was in sole possession of first place in the SEC West. The Tigers are tied with Ole Miss for second now (at 11-7), and they'll lose their No. 1 ranking when the polls update today, but they're still in much better position than a year ago.

"The first goal is to make the SEC tournament, and we're in a good position if we can have some success here," Mainieri said Sunday evening. "We want to win the SEC West, and we're right there in the midst of that. Georgia's two games ahead of us for the SEC championship, and they've got tough games ahead too.

"I think we're in good shape probably to earn a (regional) bid, and we're within striking distance of being a national seed."

None of those things seemed likely on April 20, 2008. Then, LSU started winning. The Tigers won the stay out of last place. Then they won to win the SEC West. Then they won for a shot at winning the regular-season championship, and failing that, they still became the No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament. They won to strengthen their case for a home regional one last time at the old Alex Box Stadium, and they won to make sure they could be ranked high enough to be at home for a super regional if they advanced. They won to go to Omaha.

They won 23 consecutive games, rewriting record books and wearing out the managers who kept washing the sunflower-gold jerseys the Tigers began wearing every day as good luck charms.

This team is hardly sitting in a precarious position. Unlike the 2008 team, this group is not hoping to rally to avoid an embarrassing lower-division finish. This club is a top-10 team that just lost an SEC series for the first time together.

"Everything's right out there in front of us," Mainieri said. "We just have to play well."

Another major difference between the 2008 and 2009 teams is all about expectations. Many had to recalibrate theirs for LSU baseball following a 2006 season without NCAA postseason play and a 2007 season without an appearance in either the SEC or NCAA tournaments.

When the Tigers languished in 11th place in the conference a year ago, it seemed it would take some time for Mainieri and his staff and recruits to bring LSU back to what it considers its rightful place in the college baseball landscape. As the winning streak grew, it exceeded expectations, and it was fun.

Going 1-for-3 in Omaha left some of the Tigers hungry for more. One of them was pitcher Louis Coleman, who chose to return for his senior season largely because he wanted one more change to help LSU win a national championship.

That amazing 23-game winning streak reignited high expectations in Baton Rouge. Preseason No. 1 rankings stoked passions. Suddenly, LSU baseball had something to try to live up to again, and the Tigers entered 2009 with a much different point of view than the one that welcomed the 2008 team to Opening Night.

When all of a sudden you're expected to do it, it has a way of releasing all kinds of sports-confidence equivalents of free radicals, the kinds of adrenaline-inspired demons and doubts and pressures and what-not. It happens when a Freshman All-America player gets to his sophomore season and finds he cannot carry a team as everyone expects. It happens when an unsung hero has songs written about him.

Consider LSU relief pitcher Nolan Cain. His was a career outing Sunday in the 9-4 loss to Tennessee. He came within one out of pitching the last five innings, and he shut out the Vols on two hits and two walks. He struck out seven, and he kept Tennessee hitters off balance while his teammates tried to rally the offense. The early 9-0 deficit was too great.

It also took all of the pressure off Cain. If he blew it and gave up a bunch of runs, who was going to remember? He inherited a nine-run deficit. No worries. Just go out there and pitch. Pitch he did.

Now, if Cain throws his next pitch with an SEC game on the line, will he look as sharp, as in command? If so, then he's probably turned a corner. If not, you could perhaps attribute part of his success Sunday to the lack of any real expectations.

That's not to say he didn't perform admirably. He did.

"He was very inspiring, and as happy as I was for our team because he kept us in the game, I was more happy for him," Mainieri said. "It was a good moment for him. I know right now he'd be very humble about it because we lost, and he would tell you that it doesn't matter, but to me it did matter. I was just happy for the kid to have a moment like that."

Mainieri continued.

"He's such a wonderful kid. He bleeds purple and gold. He loves this team. It was frustrating to him when he was hurt at the beginning of the year after we had thought we were really going to count on him at the beginning of the year.

"He was really competing for a starter's role, and he'd never really had that here. He had a really freaky arm, and nobody could figure out what the problem was. Then it got better, and he showed some glimpses of throwing well, and he's been a little inconsistent, but today he was outstanding."

His teammates, mostly, were not. Jared Mitchell, retired by an amazing P.J. Polk catch of a foul ball in the first inning, came to bat three more times and struck out each time. Mitchell struck out seven times in the three-game series, three times on called third strikes. The team's leadoff hitter leads the team in strikeouts with 40.

Speaking of leadoff hitters, Tennessee -- the worst team in the SEC -- retired six of nine LSU leadoff men Saturday and six of nine Sunday. The first man up each inning doesn't need to get on base for a team to win, but it doesn't hurt. The Vols put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings Sunday, and three of those scored as Tennessee built a 9-0 lead during that span.

In the Vols' 7-5 victory Saturday, Tennessee's leadoff men were 1-for-9 (with one reaching on an error), but LSU's season-high five errors more than offset that.

So, after a weekend that began with an impressive 18-3 victory against the Vols, LSU finds itself looking to take steps forward in a lot of areas.

"I'd like to see us solidify things defensively in the infield, and I'd like to see us swing the bats better and continue to see some good pitching," Mainieri said. "We just need to keep getting better in every phase. There's a lot of room for improvement."

Mitchell struck out in five consecutive at-bats at Alabama the weekend before the Tennessee series. He looks lost at the plate, especially against left-handed pitchers. Leadoff hitters should get on base, but more than that they should make contact. Even more than that, they should not let as many good pitches go by as Mitchell has done lately.

It's time Mainieri put someone else at the top of the batting order, but whom? It's not an easy choice, and not because there are so many worthy candidates. This team has yet to reveal any true leadoff men. Ryan Schimpf has had modest success in the role and was first in the batting order in 40 games last year. The early-season Leon Landry would be a strong candidate, but his slump is too recent for Mainieri to consider him the answer for the homestretch.

If Mainieri knew the answer Sunday night, he kept it to himself.

"I haven't put that kind of thought to it yet," he said. "Obviously something needs to be done. I don't know yet what I'm going to do. I'm going to sleep on it for the next day or two and come up with a plan."

He planned to discuss it today with his staff.

"He's hit well hitting leadoff too," Mainieri said. "There's been a couple of times I haven't hit him leadoff and I wished I had."

Mainieri said he's considering changing things up to take the pressure off Mitchell, but he said he's not going to give up on Mitchell.

"It seems like he's been 0-2 every at-bat, and when you're struggling that's what happens," Mainieri said. "It seems like you get in the hole 0-2 every time, and pitchers are making great pitches, and when you think they're balls, the umpires are calling them strikes.

"He'll come out of it. I don't have any doubt about that."

Don't be surprised to see a shakeup of the lineup as a whole, just to see what shakes loose. Mainieri hinted there would be more changes this week, but he wasn't specific.

This team is talented. Louis Coleman is Jared Bradford, the 2007 version, and Blake Dean is, once again, Blake Dean. Freshmen Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Hanover asserted themselves and inserted themselves into the lineup. There is no Matt Clark, but there are more potential Ryan Schimpfs, the 2008 on-a-tear edition. There is more overall pop if no home run champion.

Pitching has some issues. You saw that during the weekend, and you saw it before the weekend.

"Today we didn't win because we pitched very poorly through the first four innings of the game," Mainieri said Sunday. "To have a team that wins consistently, you have to pitch great every day. Of course, when you pitch great, there's no guarantee you're going to win. If you don't pitch great, there's a pretty good chance you're not going to win.

"So to have a very consistent team you have to have a deep pitching staff that has three or four solid starting pitchers and quality middle relief and a quality closer. Our pitching is OK in some areas, but in other areas we need improvement."

There is, every weekend in college baseball, the tendency to overreact. Win a series? Great. Lose a series? Horrible. The difference? Often, a razor-thin margin, such as a bloop single or a throwing error after an outstanding fielding play.

LSU is seemingly on an endless parade of weekend chances in which the Tigers go into Sunday with the chance to win or lose a series. Here they are, on April 20, 2009, in the mix for SEC divisional and regular-season championships.

It's a lot better place than LSU occupied on April 20, 2008. You and I both know what's different this time.

We all expected the Tigers to be at this place or better. They inherited that expectation from the 2008 version of themselves.

No comments: