It was a tough weekend, but one where the Tigers emerged victorious and earned their fifth consecutive appearance in a Super Regional. After losing to eventual National Champion Florida State in the Super Regional last season, LSU looks to make a return trip to Oklahoma City, which will require a trip through Minneapolis against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Game One: Fri, 4 PM, ESPN 2.
Game Two: Sat 5 PM, ESPN 2.
Game Three: Sun, 3 PM, ESPN.
Minnesota has been one of the top teams in the nation the last several seasons. This season Minnesota has wins over WCWS qualifiers Drake and Texas, in OOC games and went an impressive 20-2 against Big Ten opponents, losing in the Big Ten title game to Michigan. The Gophers are balanced on both sides. Offensively the Gophers hit for power ranking 19th in slugging percentage nationally and average 5.54 runs per game, 34th best in the nation, as of May 20th. The real strength of the Gophers is in the circle ranking ninth nationally in team ERA at 1.66 and a 4.39 strikeout to walk ratio.
Players to Watch
The name shouldn’t be a new one for those following Tiger softball. Smith broke onto the scene as a freshman posting an ERA around one for most of the season. She posted another strong season as a sophomore but opted to transfer back to her home state. Now a senior, Smith still appears to be an elite hurler with a 2.43 ERA and a 98 strikeouts on the season. There is no way to quantify the relationship here, but one would figure there will be a little more juice between teams when Smith is in the circle this weekend.
DenHartog, along with Hope Brander, forms one of the better one-two combinations in the country. As of May 20th, DenHartog leads the Gophers with 19 home runs and an .817 slugging percentage, ranking third in average at .384 and is tied for the team lead in doubles with 12. While the Gophers are a good offensive team, DenHartog is a notable step up from the rest of the lineup and will have to be treated carefully.
More specifically, Sunseri the pitcher. Sunseri was the only pitcher who pitched in more than two games in the regional. Her results were mostly good. She took the loss in the 5-4 loss to Texas Tech, allowing a run in an 1.2 innings of relief. Yet she also pitched the entire 13 innings in LSU’s eventual 5-4 win against Tech, with the only runs allowed coming in the first inning. If nothing else, Sunseri’s usage was further evidence that she is Beth Torina’s most trusted pitcher. It would not be surprising to see Sunseri pitch, and perhaps start, all three games this weekend. With runs figuring to be at a premium, LSU will be looking for a top-flight performance out of the staff ace.
At the midway point of the regular season, Stewart was a reserve. In the regional finale, she was hitting second. Stewart had used her regular playing time in the last part of the season to justify being named an outfield starter and was arguably LSU’s most consistent bat in the Regional. Overall she went 6-for-15, reaching base at least once in every game, with a run and an RBI. Stewart figures to be hitting near the top of the lineup for Game One, and her hot bat could prove valuable against the intimidating Gopher hurlers.
Last series the Tigers had to grind out wins despite being at home against lower ranked teams. It would seem that going on the road against a higher seeded team would not be the best setup for LSU. In fact, this series might turn out to be a better fit for the Tigers. Although the Tigers scored 16 runs over four games, the offense is still a work in progress, considering LSU scored just two runs against Monmouth, the lowest ranked team in the regional, and then managed five runs over 13 innings, practically two games, against Texas Tech. LSU’s pitching did a solid job of containing a strong Red Raider lineup. When factoring Minnesota being more dominant in the circle than at the plate, this series projects as three, low scoring games. Those are the type of games LSU has played a lot more of recently.
The winning team is likely the one that makes the most of its opportunities, while shutting down the opposition’s chances. For the Tigers it will be about finding ways to manufacture runs. It’s a series that could play well to the Tigers strengths, with Aliyah Andrews providing a speed element, Amanda Sanchez pure hitting ability, and the team’s overall ability to draw walks. Against the Gopher pitching, it will take a true team effort to score runs, not only reliance on the team’s top hitters. In the circle, the Gophers have a tough lineup, but one that should be easier to manage than Texas Tech’s. If the TIger offense can make the most of its scoring chances, they will punch their ticket to the Finals.