The March to Perfection ends before it begins, with LSU finally dropping a game on Sunday. There's no such thing as a "good" loss, but baseball isn't football. Even the best teams are going to drop games, regardless of the opposition. The little guy always has a shot in one game. With that in mind, this was about as good of a loss as one can hope for, albeit to an Ivy League school.
Down 8-1 in the eighth inning, it sure didn't look that way, but LSU rallied back to make it 8-7. In the 9th, LSU loaded the bases but failed to plate a run when the umpire botched the ball four call. I'm not going to complain about the umpire, as inconsistent strike zones are simply part of the college game. I think he clearly missed the call, but what can you do? LSU hitters can sleep soundly, knowing they did what they could.
Since it is early spring, this is the first time this year I get to make one of my many complaints against small ball. LSU came back by adhering to the central tenant of "big ball": thou shalt not make outs.
One of my least favorite things about small ball, aside from the giving away of those precious outs, is that it sends the wrong message to the team. It tells the team that the coach doesn't trust you. LSU has made a habit in recent years of making incredible rallies, and part of the reason for that is that Mainieri puts faith in his players and they reward him. He believes in them, therefore they believe in themselves. He puts players in a position to succeed. It's a wonderful coaching style, and a central tenant that Mainieri lost focus on this Sunday.
Let's compare and contrast the two innings.
LSU scored six runs on three hits in the eighth. Of those three hits, only one was for extra bases, and that was a double by Edward with the bases loaded, scoring two runs. The inning was fueled by the most unglamorous weapon in the offense's arsenal: the walk. Princeton walked the bases loaded, and Nola even drove in a run by taking a free pass. Before LSU managed a hit, they had cut the lead by one and loaded the bases. A big inning was made possible by the simple virtue of patience.
Compare that to the ninth inning.
LSU had the 3-4-5 hitters due up, the meat of the order. Tyler Hanover worked a leadoff walk and Mikie Mahtook, far and away the best hitter in the lineup, stepped to the plate. Mainieri called for a bunt. Now, I understand the concept of bunting the game tying run to second base in the ninth inning. That's not always the wrong call. If I'm ever going to endorse the sacrifice bunt, it's going to be in this kind of situation. But this is Mikie Mahtook. Asking Mahtook to bunt is literally taking the game out of the hands of your best player. You set the table for Mahtook, you don't have him set the table for others. However, Mahtook worked a walk as well.
When Mainieri then called for yet another attempted sacrifice, I about jumped through the roof. Here's a pitcher who has just proven that he can't find the strike zone, and you're just going to hand him an out? Asking Nola to bunt isn't quite as crazy as asking Mahtook to bunt, but Mainieiri was about to plow through the heart of his order by having two of his three hitters not even try to hit. The game winning run was already in scoring position, but Mainieri didn't trust Nola to get the clutch hit (or work a walk). Princeton reacted to the free out predictably, by walking the #6 hitter, Katz, to load the bases and create a force play at home.
So, instead of trying to win the game with his 4-5-6 hitters, Mainieri decided he wanted the game decided by his #7 and #8 hitters. He chose to rely on the back of the order instead of the middle of it. He also gave a struggling pitcher an out and just a little bit of confidence. He responded by getting Edward to pop up. Now, the game came down to needing our catcher, the weakest slot in the order, to get on base to extend the game. Mainieri predictably went to the bench, and called on Jackson Slaid.
This points to another weakness of game management. Mainieiri has not developed much of a bench, relying on his starters pretty heavily. Outside of his catcher platoon, only one starter has ever sat down for a game (Edward for Dozar). Dozar is 0-10 on the season, Ware is off to spring practice, and Lowery had already pinch hit in the game. Mainieri's options were Ross or a player who had not yet succeeded this season. He called on Jackson Slaid and his 0-1 season batting line. Slaid had a great at bat, and should have earned the walk, but that's the way the cookie crumbled. Mainieri could have made his stand with Austin Nola and Mason Katz. Instead he tapped Alex Edward and Jackson Slaid.
In the 8th, Mainieri trusted his players, and they acted accordingly. In the 9th, he didn't even trust his very best players, and they again acted accordingly. Mainieri, more often than not, pulls the right levers and makes the right call. On Sunday, he made the wrong one and the team paid the price.