Although the No.7 Tigers have not been playing their best ball of late, going 2-2 over their last four, they have the biggest test of the regular season with No.1 Florida visiting Tiger Park for three games starting Friday.
Game One: Friday - 4PM, SECN+, 107.3 FM
Game Two: Friday - 6:30 PM, SECN+, 107.3 FM
Game Three: Saturday - 11 AM, ESPN 2, 107.3 FM
LSU has and will face many tough opponents this year, but Florida is in a class of its own. The Gators have made 12 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, have made the college world series in five of the last six seasons and are the two-time reigning national champions.
The Gators were the pre-season number one and have shown no signs of vacating that spot. They opened the year on a 26-game win streak, and even after that one loss, have won their last four. Florida is the only team in the SEC to rank in the top-10 nationally in team ERA and batting average.
Players to Know
Aleshia Ocasio (.41 ERA, 10 W, .177 OPP BA)
Delanie Gourley (.86 ERA, 95 K, .132 OPP BA)
Kelly Barnhill (10 W, 99 K, .126 OPP BA)
Like the Tigers, Florida has multiple shutdown pitchers at its disposal. The ace is Ocasio who leads the nation in ERA. Of late, Florida has used her out of the pen, with just one start in the Gators last seven games but multiple relief appearances.
Beyond Ocasio, the Florida staff is dominant top from bottom. They lead the SEC in team ERA and strikeouts while surrendering the fewest hits of any team in the conference. The 28 runs allowed by the Gators is also best in the conference, with the next best team, Mississippi State, having allowed 55 runs.
Kayli Kvistad (.435 AVG, .710 SLG, .32 RBI)
Janell Wheaton (.359 AVG, 5 HR, .500 OBP)
Kirsti Merritt (4 HR, 22 RBI, 9 SB)
Offensively, the Gators don’t have power, opting to "manufacture" runs. The Florida offense leads the SEC in fewest strikeouts, is second in walks, and fourth in batting average. That balances out with the unit ranking in the bottom of conference in home runs and last in doubles.
The Gators are active on the bases with four players having eight or more steals on the season. Like the LSU offense, the Florida offense has impressive totals but has had its share of individual games where the offensive output, based on the opposition, was a bit underwhelming
Stat of the weekend
Carly Hoover is currently one of three players in the SEC with 100 or more strikeouts.
What to Watch For
Capitalizing on Opportunities
If there are two areas of concern for the Tigers it is the defense and leaving runners stranded. It is critical the LSU defense plays well against a Gator offense that likes to put the ball in play. The LSU offense needs to capitalize on any walks or errors committed by the Gators as neither appear likely from a team which doesn’t walk many batters and leads the SEC in fielding percentage and fewest errors committed.
Pitch for Pitch
Like the Alabama series two weeks ago, this weekend features two of the best pitching staffs in the country. As much as the defense and offense has to come through, the pressure is really on the LSU pitching staff. Carly Hoover, Allie Walljasper, and maybe even Sydney Smith, will need to match Florida’s three hurlers.
May in March
The weekend series is the only time during the regular season these teams square off. Both teams have serious title aspirations and this weekend probably won’t be the last time these two teams face each other. Expect a postseason atmosphere, without the postseason stakes.
Even though the Tigers are one of the best teams in the country, they are deceptively difficult to predict. Against Alabama the offense and pitching clicked for most of the series. Against A&M the offense and pitching was mediocre. An optimist says that the Tigers are back home where they have lost just twice and last year the Tigers lit up Ocasio during the series in Gainesville. A pessimist might argue that the Gators had success against Hoover and Walljasper in that same series.
On paper these two teams matchup pretty evenly. The Tigers hold the edge on offense, with the Gators having the superior pitching. While LSU hasn’t been playing it’s best ball of late, the Tigers also looked a bit sluggish going into the Alabama series, before taking two of three from the Tide. Florida should bring out the best in the Tigers this weekend, despite the recent struggles. If the Tiger can hit Ocasio as they did a year ago and the defense can limit the errors, the Tigers should secure a series win.