The opinions of LSU fans on worth of the SEC Baseball Tournament vary greatly. One camp, that probably considers themselves the "old guard" portion of the fan base, doesn't really care what happens in Hoover. After all, Skip Bertman never thought it was important to win and openly commented about how little he cared about winning it. In fact, only once in Bertman's five National Championship years, 2000, did LSU complete the clean sweep of SEC and NCAA tournament championships. Another part of the fan base sees Hoover as a very important step towards a National Championship. After all, it has some of the strongest competition LSU could face all year before Omaha. SEC Baseball is the best in the country, and you only get better by playing great teams. Paul Mainieri has dominated in Hoover while at LSU, winning the tournament 5 times and losing a total of 5 games in Hoover over his 10 years at LSU.
Of course, neither group is completely right or wrong. While not a concern this year, past SEC Tournament championships have greatly boosted LSU's post season prospects, turning regional hosts into National Seeds. And while LSU's only NCAA Championship season under Mainieri in 2009 also had an SEC Tournament Championship, the last 3 SEC teams to win it all in Omaha have done so without taking home the prize from Hoover.
So what do we take from LSU's painful loss to Florida in the SEC semifinal? LSU had avoided Florida in the regular season, does this loss mean the Gators are the better team? What if Vandy is also better? Is LSU's pitching staff doomed to lose a game in a year when the offense is running at it's best pace in years? Or is LSU's offense, held to just a single run against the Gators, just fools gold waiting to be exposed?
After the week that was, I'd like to think LSU's bullpen is a little better than is gets credit for. After bad starts from Poché and Bain, they came in and did their best, holding the opposition to 4 runs over 16 innings in the first 2 games. For all the blame they get, LSU's pitching still has the lowest ERA in the conference. Alex Lange's performance yesterday should have everyone glad that he's coming back into form. His 5 hit, 0 run, 7K, 6BB outing in exactly 100 pitches was shaky at certain moments, but he's learned to start trusting the veteran defense behind him. He's scheduled to start the 2nd game of the regional next weekend and I'd bet any amount of money it will be a gem.
LSU's offense also impressed, until it didn't. In the first two games the Tigers blasted 19 runs on 22 hits, most of it staying inside the cavernous confines of the Hoover Met. This team knows how to hit into the gaps and that, combined with the hyper aggressive baserunning, is what has given LSU the most runs scored in the SEC. Not to mention this team's fantastic speed is still turning a few ground ball outs into singles through sheer force of will.
So what happened? Saturday against the Gators is an example of what can happen when things break the wrong way for LSU's offense. Multiple line drives right at Gator defenders. Jake Fraley tripping at the exact wrong moment to get picked off at 2B. This isn't the dead ball era anymore. 1 run is not going to win you many, if any, games this year. Relief pitching that only gives up 2 runs should win you a game. On the other hand, there's no denying that Stallings 3rd pitch HR is the singular play that cost LSU the game. I had thought that Mainieri had learned his lesson about putting Stallings in in a tight situation, but maybe this will sting enough to make the lesson stick. I don't like calling out an individual player's shortcomings and we don't do it here at ATVS as a rule, and if LSU's offense had produced anything more, this would be just a footnote, but the kid has proven over and over he can't handle those situations. There is a place for him somewhere in the bullpen, but a save situation aint it.
But hey, it's just one game. And as many of you have been quick to say since last weekend, the SEC Tourney Championship isn't what you want LSU to win this year. Any loss that doesn't end the season is a chance to learn what needs to be done better. The Tigers get an extra day to rest and get ready for the 5 wins needed to get to Omaha.
Tourney sites will be announced tonight at 7pm CST, with the full bracket being released tomorrow morning.