Friday night's game was a gift to those of us who write about LSU baseball. It was almost an instance of too many storylines, I kind of wished they saved some for later. But it fit the SEC opener, a game that always seems more important than it really is. However, LSU opened up last year's SEC slate by getting swept by Florida, and the team never fully recovered.
I do believe last year's Arkansas sweep was more traumatic, given that LSU could have won any or all of those three games. It was like having a hangover from a hard night's drinking to go with a massive head wound. The psychological scars were great and very real, but a sweep just kills you in the standings. The nature of college baseball's schedule means that teams and fans tend to think in terms of series instead of individual games. Losing a series can be made up the next weekend. Getting swept means a team has to win three straight series, assuming no sweeps, to get back to 500. A sweep kills your whole month. An opening series sweep can kill your whole season, if you let it.
So before looking at the game itself, Friday's win was a huge just because it took getting swept off the table. Sure, MSU isn't a terribly good team and there was little chance of them coming into Alex Box and pulling off the sweep, but it's nice to start off on the right foot after stumbling out of the gates last year. Get the damn win. Then win the series. Then try and get a sweep. Not a bad way to spend the weekend.
OK, we didn't get the sweep. But it's a lot nicer going into Sunday trying to get a sweep with the series already in the bag, then trying to win a rubber match.
Mississippi St clearly had same the attitude, because on Friday they kept throwing Chris Statton out there until his arm fell out. Mainieri responded by throwing Kevin Gausman out to the mound until his arm fell off as well. The two starters combined for 28 strikeouts and two runs allowed. Stratton threw 137 pitches before getting removed with one out in the ninth and Gausman threw a mere 122 pitches before coming out with... you guessed it, two outs in the ninth.
Now, I feel a lot of pitcher abuse in college is downright unconscionable. College coaches keep throwing a guy out there with no regard to his future health, in the relentless pursuit of an additional victory. It's just not worth the cost. So I want to jump all over both coaches for their decision, but you know what?
Both pitchers looked real good all night.
Pitch counts are a guideline not an ironclad rule. When a pitcher has a high pitch count, that's a good indicator he may be getting tired, and it should alert a coach to be on the lookout for signs of fatigue. Because it's when a pitcher is tired that his mechanics break down and he gets hurt. But neither pitcher seemed to be struggling at all, as they continually mowed down hitters. And as soon as either of them allowed a baserunner, out came the hook. Both coaches had a short leash on their starters, but I think were justified in the high pitch counts. If the pitcher isn't struggling, why take him out? A high pitch count means monitor more closely, not take out right away. And that's what both coaches did.
Speaking of coaching strategies which drive me nuts, I am the Czar of the I Hate Bunting Club. Bunting sucks. It gives away precious outs, and it prevents run scoring. There's very few situations in which a coach should bunt, but one of them did pop up on Friday night: down by one in the ninth, leadoff hitter gets to first. Before calling for a sacrifice, a coach needs to ask, "Will this run win the game or send us to extra innings?" If the answer is yes, then by all means, sacrifice. LSU absolutely, positively had to get one run or the game was over. That's precisely when you employ a one-run strategy. So out came the bunting stick, and I'll be honest, I was 100% behind the call. Stratton had been virtually unhittable, Ross is a good not great hitter, and LSU needed to get one run. This is precisely when a team should sac bunt.
Grant Dozar then came through with a clutch double, making Mainieri look like a genius. Good calls are all well and good, but it usually comes down to the players coming through. Dozar, who is rapidly climbing up my personal list of favorite Tigers, came through with a big double off the wall.
And then the Mississippi St. coaching staff lost their collective minds.
If you think I hate bunting, that is nothing for the outright contempt I have for the intentional walk. I hate the intentional walk so much, I will root against my own team to give up a run after an intentional walk, just because the Baseball Gods need to spite those who would employ such a gutless and inane strategy. Unless you are facing a roided up Barry Bonds or Mikie Mahtook on a day he's eaten his Wheaties, you should not issue an intentional walk. It is usually gutless, and always dumb. Don't give the other team baserunners.
Now, the first intentional walk failed because a wild pitch allowed Arby Fields, pinch running for Dozar, to advance to third. So instead of a runner on 2nd with one out, there's now runners on the corners with one out, and a fly ball wins the game. And you did this to yourself. Still, a groundball could still get MSU out of the inning.
Not content with making things more difficult on the pitcher and the defense, MSU upped the ante and intentionally walked the next batter, too. Now, bases are juiced and one mistake by the pitcher ends the game. He has to throw strikes because a walk scores a run. This gives the hitter a huge advantage - knowing that strikes are coming. Sure enough, a basehit won the game, but it was created by some of the most piss poor end game strategy you will ever witness. Hey, thanks for the win, State.
It didn't result in a sweep, as State managed to take the Sunday game to avoid catastrophe, but the series win was set up by a series of poor late inning decisions on Friday. We'll take the game and the series, thankyouverymuch, but this team can't rely on such tactical errors in the future.