LSU didn’t play this baseball season so much as they survived it.
Making the tournament was no sure thing as the Tigers limped down the stretch before doing their usual bit of postseason heroics at the LSU Invitational in Hoover. Usually, we consider the SEC tournament as a prelude to greater postseason success, but this year it was a necessary march through the bracket to secure a NCAA tournament bid.
The team that made it to the finish line bears some similarity to the one that started the season against Notre Dame, but it has gone through multiple iterations to get here. The team that took the field against Mississippi State on Day One of the tournament was missing three starters from the lineup on Opening Night.
Hal Hughes took the place of Josh Smith at shortstop due to Smith’s back injuries. He has been officially shut down for the year. The Bryce Jordan as starting catcher experiment didn’t quite take, but he bounced back from a knee injury that had seemingly ended his season to work his way back in the lineup. However, in a must win game at the season’s close, Nick Coomes donned the tools of ignorance. Bryce would play sparingly in Hoover, and never behind the plate.
But no player symbolized the hodgepodge nature of the LSU lineup this season than Austin Bain. He played in the season opener as a pitcher. He closed out the final two innings and earned the win. Three and half months later, he has been one of the team’s best hitters and the fairly regular first baseman, taking over for Nick Webre.
Mainieri usually uses the first few weeks to find the lineup he likes, but he doesn’t usually play mix and match with the lineup too much. He finds his guys, and he rides them. Last year, five guys started at least 70 of the team’s 72 total games. Only eleven players had at least 10 starts. Outside of a few platoons, he sticks with his guys.
Injuries and inconsistent play made that impossible this year. Antoine Duplantis is the only player to start every single game and Hal Hughes is second on the team in starts, having missed a start in three games. Mainieri did eventually find a core, six players have made at least 50 starts in 62 games played, but 13 players have made at least 10 starts.
And the batting lineup has been a model of consistency compared to the rotation. Without checking, can you remember the rotation for the Notre Dame series?
Caleb Gilbert – Zack Hess – Todd Peterson.
Zack Hess would make it through the season as LSU’s nominal ace, but Gilbert and Peterson would combine for just five starts in SEC play. Gilbert’s been banished to long relief and Peterson took over the closer’s job by season’s end. He’s one of five pitchers with at least one save this year, and his five saves barely edges out Bain’s four.
Going into the NCAA regional, Paul Mainieri still doesn’t know who is in his rotation. Nick Bush will get the start on Friday against the Aztecs, pushing Hess to the Saturday start in what hopefully will be the marble game. Bush has the same number of saves as starts in SEC play (2). AJ Labas was the starter of the final game of the regular season, but didn’t pitch in Hoover due to arm soreness.
Ma’Khail Hilliard emerged as LSU’s best starter in SEC play, but he started to slow down as the season wore on and now Hilliard is experiencing arm soreness after the wild ride through Hoover. He’s supposed to pitch Sunday, but given this season… who knows?
LSU shut down Josh Smith in the season’ final month, and then did the same with Nick Storz trying to work through the ill effects of his offseason shoulder surgery. Mainieri nearly had to end the season of a third player, Bryce Jordan, but it seems he will be available for designated hitter work in Oregon. And this doesn’t even get into more minor injuries like Brandt Broussard recovering from a broken thumb.
This team has been under a dark cloud all year, and Mainieri deserves praise for getting this team this far given the players he lost from last year’s squad coupled with the seemingly nonstop parade of injuries. One that started last July, when the likely ace of this year’s rotation, Eric Walker, underwent surgery that cost him the entire 2018 season.
LSU is not a program that accepts participation trophies. The point of the game is to win, and the pressure is on just like any other year to advance to the Super Regionals and then to Omaha. However, given the circumstances of the season, it truly is remarkable the team has made it this far.
We didn’t even need a possum this time.