First, the good news. LSU swept Tennessee this weekend to climb to the top of the SEC West standings. Yes, the Vols sort of stink, but LSU couldn't take a series from them last year, so let's enjoy not only a series win, but a sweep. This team keeps rolling along, despite not looking as dominant as last year's team.
Secondly, Anthony Ranaudo made his SEC debut. He pitched two innings of ball in game one of the doubleheader on Saturday, allowing precisely zero baserunners. After facing the minimum six batters, Ranaudo went back into the dugout, never to return. I'm supposed to feel good that Ranaudo A) pitched in an SEC game and B) got everyone out. But I still don't. I won't feel good about Ranaudo until he starts AND pitches a full six or seven innings. Hell, I won't feel good until he has consecutive starts.
This team needs Ranaudo healthy for the postseason and I fully understand Mainieri bringing the ace along slowly. Be careful with that arm, not just for your own team's benefit, but also for Ranaudo's pro prospects. I'm certainly not criticizing Mainieri for being cautious. He should be cautious. I'm just saying that as a fan, I don't believe in Ranaudo's health until he actually pitches a full game. I'm just managing my expectations. We aren't out of the woods with Ranaudo's arm just yet.
The rest of the staff is still a giant question mark, and it's officially time to start worrying. Six pitchers not named Ranaudo have started at least one game. Let's just throw two of those out as possible starters going forward. Michael Reed has two starts, and his 15 innings of work he's been varying degrees of ineffective. That 7.20 ERA is no mirage and it's no surprise Reed didn't appear this weekend after only getting through 3 innings against Lafayette in a midweek start.
So that leaves us with four option to fill (hopefully) two slots behind Ranaudo: Austin Ross, Joey Bourgeois, Jordan Rittiner, and Chris Matulis. Mainieri has displayed almost unwavering loyalty to Ross, despite a seeming lack of success. Ross' 4.54 ERA isn't jaw dropping, but it's certainly not terrible, particularly in the high run environment of college baseball. His underlying numbers, however, shows that he may be pretty darn unlucky. He has a K/BB ratio of 37/9. He's only allowed 10 extra base hits (4 of them homers) in 33.2 innings of work. Opposing hitters are only hitting .258 against him overall and .333 on balls in play, which isn't that "hit unlucky". He's allowed 42 baserunners, yet 17 of them have scored, just over 40%. By contrast, the rest of the staff has allowed 250 baserunners and 59 runs, a ratio of 23.6% of runners scored. This may point to a problem with working from the stretch or just getting victimized by the big inning. I haven't lost faith in Ross. In fact, I think his dominant start on Friday is a portent of things to come. Have faith in the upperclassmen starter.
Which means we have three pitchers vying for the last slot, as Ross is nowhere near getting benched. Joey Bourgeois has six starts, as Mainieri has kept throwing him out there each weekend. That's fine when Ranaudo is hurt, but he's the guy most likely to lose a job once the ace gets healthy. Bourgeois has a 5.64 ERA, and his problem is easy to spot. He's our very own Nuke LaLoosh: 21 strikeouts and 18 walks in 30 innings. He can mow guys down, but he gives away far too many free passes. He also hasn't had a Quality Start since the Pepperdine game. As the competition has gotten better, he's gotten worse, a pretty bad scenario. He's not a guy to give up on or anything, but he should be on the shortest of short leashes.
Jordan Rittiner has become the swing guy on the staff, and he has thrived in this role. He's come in every imaginable scenario and done well. His 3.16 ERA is complemented by a K/BB ratio of 14/5 and he is yet to allow a home run in 25.2 innings. He's also looking increasingly like the first option out of the pen, getting the call in the first two games this weekend. I'm not convinced he can't be a starter, but Mainieri seems to be slowplaying the freshman.
Chris Matulis still is the team enigma. I'm still not entirely sure why he was left off the postseason roster last year, especially given our dire need of lefties (though Rittiner also fills that need and it explains why Cotton keeps getting chances). Matulis has a stellar 2.31 ERA and a gaudy 4-0 record in three starts (essentially four if you can't coming in after Ranaudo on Saturday). However, he only has a 17/12 K/BB ratio and he leads the team with 5 home runs allowed. He also has 3 wild pitches and 3 hit batsmen, further showing that he's not entirely in control. Matulis keeps putting up good numbers without earning the trust of the coaching staff. There has to be something else there. Mainieri seems extremely reluctant to go to the obvious solution once Ranaudo comes back: go righty/lefty/righty in the rotation, with Matulis as the Saturday starter and Rittiner as the lefty out of the pen on Friday/Sunday and Bradshaw as the righty out of the pen on Saturday, demoting Bourgeois to a fireballer out of the pen where he might be more effective in short outings.
But Mainieri does not seem willing to put Matulis in the rotation. There's just something about Matulis that doesn't engender trust. Mainieri seems to be going with any option other than just handing the ball to the sophomore. He may not be wrong, as Matulis' ERA does not seem sustainable given his K/BB ratio. However, if Ranaudo does not get healthy, I don't see how he can avoid rolling the dice.
In the end, this might not be a bad thing. This may not be a rotation built for a weekend series, but it looks like a killer combination in a playoff format. Mainieri has five or six pitchers he should feel entirely comfortable going four innings with in any game. And that may be the winning strategy: mix and matching all of these pitchers to create mismatches in a lineup designed to beat the starter. Throw the soft tossing Ross and then the fireballing Bourgeois in the second half of the game? That could be lethal. Get a righty heavy lineup against Rittiner and then bring in Bradshaw to flip the platoon advantage. Mainieri is not required to go with three guys and hope each one can go seven innings to get to Bert and Ott in the pen. He can go with guys for three to four innings and then have them ready again two days later.
This staff is just one giant bullpen. It's a strategy that can work, and has worked so far. It's also a strategy that works better if you can have Ranaudo go eight dominant innings to give everyone else a rest.