WEEKEND GAMETHREAD: Vanderbilt (3GMS)

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The end of the season looked much tougher at the begining of the year, with LSU having to face 2 Omaha teams in back to back weeks. But then Vanderbilt's (24-24, 11-13 in SEC) bad start turned into a bad season and suddenly everyone's looking ahead to a SEC Regular Season Championship series at South Carolina next weekend. Overlooking the Dores would be a big mistake, however. I talked with Christian D'Andrea of the excellent Vandy blog Anchor of Gold to get a preview of the team.

PodKATT: Vandy lost the most of anyone in the SEC from last year's teams (11 players to the draft, 15 total), but I don't think anyone foresaw the nosedive at the start of the season coming from a squad that had just been to Omaha. The competition Vandy faced was tough (both Stanford and Oregon could be national seeds) but what caused the bad start?

Christian D'Andrea: The easiest piece to point to is that attrition. Vanderbilt lost their entire weekend starting staff and the heart of their lineup this summer, and that only made up 40% of their overall losses from that Omaha roster. While stalwarts like Tony Kemp and Anthony Gomez remained, there were too many question marks surrounding this team as the season started. Valued recruits like Chris Harvey and Vince Conde stepped up to fill that void, but it was a case of too much, too soon for some of these players.

There's a lot of talent in the cupboard for Tim Corbin, but that inexperience - coupled with a tough, tough out-of-conference schedule - really set this team back early in the season. You can see the mental lapses in those first few weeks - things like errors, baserunning mistakes, blown assignments. At that point in the season Vandy was more of a collection of talent and less of a team. That's something that has been improving as the season has worn on, especially at the plate, but problems persist.

PK: Vandy has started to turn it around here at the end, climbing out of the basement of the standings with a big series win over Kentucky and a midweek win over a ranked Louisville team that had the Dores back at .500. What's changed that has Vandy winning again and do you think there is a postseason future beyond Hoover?

CA: The biggest change has just been getting games in the ledger for some of these kids. Vanderbilt's starting rotation is still pretty unstable, but has grown considerably throughout the season. T.J. Pecoraro hasn't been impressive, but just getting him back from injury at midseason has given this team a boost. Ditto for Tyler Beede's composed play as the season has worn on, and Sam Selman's newfound ability to display a modicum of control on the mound.

At the plate, Vanderbilt's veteran players are beginning to show the leadership that they need to in order to pull this team up by their bootstraps. Connor Harrell is doing his usual "suck for three months, catch fire when it counts" routine, and he may finally give this team the hammer they need in the middle of the lineup. Gomez, Conrad Gregor, and Mike Yastrzemski's patience at the plate in recent weeks has rubbed off on other players as well. There are still rough spots in the lineup, but the team appears to be playing smarter at the plate and getting more timely hits as a result.

This weekend will play a huge role in dictating Vandy's postseason. Their win Tuesday over Louisville got them up to .500 for the first time all season. They'll have to win five more games before the NCAA Tournament in order to stay above that mark and be eligible for a Regional. If they can do that, that means that they'll have likely taken games from LSU, Ole Miss, and whoever they meet in the SEC Tournament. Those wins, coupled with series wins over Kentucky and Georgia and a top 10 SOS should be enough to put them on the happy side of the tournament bubble. A top eight finish in the SEC would make things even more secure.

PK: Vandy's team ERA of 4.30 is 2nd worst in the league ahead of only the dismal Tide. There aren't a lot of highlights in the pen, but there are a handful of guys with decent numbers and the overall K/BB ratio isn't that bad. Who should LSU fear seeing most and what can you tell us about the late move of Sam Selman into the starting rotation?

CA: Selman is an intriguing case. Like Jack Armstrong before him, he's got the power and size to be a next-level pitcher. Unfortunately, much like Jack, he has struggled with his control and been unable to translate his talent into wins. That has changed in the past month. Selman has become this team's weekday ace, mowing down mid-major opponents but doing so impressively. In his last five starts, he's allowed just 19 hits while striking out 37 batters in 28 innings. Vandy went 5-0 in those games.

However, it's a huge step up to go from striking out MTSU batters in Nashville to facing LSU batters in Baton Rouge. Kevin Ziomek wasn't getting it done for this team, so it's tough to belabor the switch to Selman. Still, there are few Vandy fans that aren't at least a little bit nervous about Selman's first weekend start in SEC play.

Otherwise, the guy you'll have to watch for is Tyler Beede. Beede, a first-round selection of the Blue Jays last year, took a little while to acclimate to the SEC game, but he's been solid - if inconsistent - since conference play started. His seven shutout innings (4 hits, 8 Ks) helped push Vandy past Kentucky two weeks ago, but he ended up getting yanked after just 2.1 innings against UT last week. Which Beede will show up? I'd bet on the former, but this team has proven that anything's possible with young players.

PK: Lots of names on that lineup that gave LSU plenty of trouble last year, including Gomez, Gregor, and "Did you know he's related to" Yastrzemski, but the production is down this year and the Dores seem prone to strikeout, something that LSU's starting pitching will love. What are Vandy's offensive tendencies and who's your best bat?

CA: It's taken a while for this team to be able to string hits together, and momentum was a mystery for them for basically the first two months of the season. Gregor, Harrell and Tony Kemp have all been disappointing this season to varying extents, but they've all shown flashes of being able to turn it around late in the season. Gregor and Harrell in particular have come up big in Vandy wins over the past two weeks. Vanderbilt has always been more about small ball and stringing together hits, so to have these guys getting on base and keeping rallies alive will be huge for this team.

The two bats I'd be worried about if I were LSU are from Harrell and catcher Spencer Navin. Harrell can tear the cover off the ball but has some weird voodoo curse on him that keeps him from doing it consistently until May. Navin has been more of a surprise. The sophomore from Iowa has developed into a reliable middle-of-the-order presence with great patience and decent power. If those two are clicking and Gregor can continue his solid play, Vanderbilt might have an actual, formidable heart to their lineup - something they've lacked all season.

PK: Vandy desperately needs some wins to keep itself eligible for the post season, but LSU is looking like a team on fire, and it's Senior Night weekend. How do you see the weekend turning out?

CA: Let's face it; no one wants to play at Alex Box against LSU, but especially not for the last homestand of the regular season. That's a high pressure situation and Vandy is bringing a roster full of kids that will never have experienced anything like that before. That's a big concern for a team that has been prone to mental mistakes all season.

On the other hand, their recent momentum has fostered a lot of goodwill within the locker room. This team seems to fully grasp the severity of their situation and they've been playing more focused baseball as a result. Unfortunately, the pitching just isn't there right now to compete with LSU on the road. I see Pecoraro and the pen getting hit hard on Friday and Selman throwing 5 decent innings on Saturday en route to a tough loss. Fortunately, Beede twirls 7 innings of three-hit ball on Sunday to prevent the sweep and keep Vandy's NCAA Tournament hopes reasonable.

I hope I'm wrong with that prediction, but this is a flawed team. They've improved throughout the season, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament would do wonders for next season's morale and experience. Unfortunately, it might be too late for that.

***

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There is a small lineup change that's been announced for the weekend and it's that Nola and Eades are swapping the Sat-Sun roles. Also, expect a few changes either Saturday or Sunday that'll get a few seniors into the lineup (Officially, Senior Night will be celebrated Saturday with pregame presentations and a postgame fireworks show)

It's been a while, so here's a quick update on the attendance figures. The current count (season tickets + additional sold) stands at 397,140 for the season with 4 games left. To crack 400,000 for the season, LSU needs to average a paid attendance of 9895 at each of the final 4 home games. The "used rate" stands at 52.56% with the Actual Attendance for the season at 189,421, which means LSU has made almost 2 million dollars off of unused tickets this season. And it goes without saying, but LSU could not play another home game this year and still win it's 17th straight national attendance title by more than 50,000

TV: WHOLE SERIES TELEVISED! Cox Sports has the game on Friday, and SportsSouth/FSN Houston will carry Saturday and Sunday. Online, Geaux Zone is streaming video on Friday, then ESPN3.com has the rest (with local blackout restrictions

Weather: It ain't looking good folks. A large system from Texas is already in the area and even heavier rain is expected overnight and into Saturday morning. Be ready for DH action on Sunday

PITCHING MATCHUPS via LSUSports.net
Game 1 - 7pm - Cox Sports
LSU - So. RHP Kevin Gausman (7-1, 3.12 ERA, 75.0 IP, 20 BB, 97 SO)
VU - So. RHP T.J. Pecoraro (0-3, 5.40 ERA, 23.1, 14, 16 SO)

Game 2 - 7pm - SportSouth/FSNHouston/ESPN3.com
LSU - Fr. RHP Aaron Nola (5-2, 3.90 ERA, 55.1 IP, 4 BB 54 SO)
VU - Jr. LHP Sam Selman (7-3, 4.25 ERA, 53.0 IP, 28 BB, 60 SO)

Game 3 - 1pm - SportSouth/FSNHouston/ESPN3.com
LSU - So. RHP Ryan Eades (5-2, 3.29 ERA, 65.2 IP, 17 BB, 47 SO)
VU - Fr. RHP Tyler Beede (1-4, 4.14 ERA, 58.2 IP, 20 BB, 54 SO)

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