Fresh off the heels of a state wide COVID19 rules revamp and de-escalation in The Great State of Louisiana, the LSU Tigers (25-15, 6-12 SEC) will reopen Alex Box Stadium at Skip Bertman Field to full fan capacity for the first time since March 2020 to welcome the unanimously ranked No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks (32-7, 13-5 SEC) to Baton Rouge on Friday night. Last weekend Arkansas was at No. 11 South Carolina and took two out of three games to win their sixth consecutive SEC series in 2021 (or in other words—all of them). They are the only team in the league to do so at this point in the season. The Hogs are atop the leaderboard in the SEC West, currently two games ahead of Mississippi State.
Jr. LHP Patrick Wicklander (2-1) 2.20 ERA, 14 BB, 44 K, .220 BAA
So. RHP Peyton Pallette (1-2) 3.98 ERA, 16 BB, 56 K, .193 BAA
RHP Kevin Kopps 18 app, 5 SV, (6-0), 0.97 ERA, 37 IP, 66 K, .177 BAA
RHP Ryan Costieu 16 app (5-1), 4.86 ERA, 16.2 IP, 19 K, .217 BAA
LHP Cadem Monke 17 app (5-1) 5.21 ERA, 19 IP, 20 K, .188 BAA
RHP Jaxon Wiggins 12 app (3-0) 5.11 ERA, 12.1 IP, 16 K, .217 BAA
RHP Zack Morris 13 app, 12.2 IP, 15 K, .244 IP
This year’s Arkansas pitching staff is overshadowed by their very stout offense and their propensity for having solid pitching year after year up in Fayetteville. However, that doesn’t mean that this team can’t pitch. Dave Van Horn’s staff is led by Friday night starter, Southpaw Patrick Wicklander who features a low ninety’s FB and off-speed pitches that will keep the Tigers off balance. Wicklander is currently No. 4 in SEC play with an 1.97 ERA. Saturday’s starter is righty Peyton Pallette who throws a 93-95 MPH FB and utilizes 12-6 curveball, and thanks to this, he’s able to hold batters to a .193 average against him. Due to last weekend’s weather in Columbia, SC, the Razorback’s pitching plans got shuffled, so there is no announced starter for Sunday quite yet. To compliment Arkansas’ starters are a stable of workhorses, who not unlike LSU, have had some very good outings, and some not so good, so their numbers can be deceiving. Junior closer/stopper/fireman extraordinaire Kevin Kopps was, this week, named a National Player of the Week and SEC Co-Pitcher of the Week after striking out twelve of fifteen batters faced in five perfect innings pitched, in two games, against No. 11 South Carolina. Small aside—Freshman Jaxon Wiggins is extremely intriguing with scouting reports saying his fastball can touch triple digits.
So, while Arkansas is middle of the road in the SEC in pitching statistically, that is thanks most in part to their bullpen. The Friday and Saturday night starters have solid repertoires and it’s going to take grinding out some at bats to get the offense going this weekend.
1B Brady Slavens (38 G) .309/.584/.351, 10 HR, 47 RBI, 2-2 SB, 4.2 K/BB (42/10)
RF Cayden Wallace (36 G) .304/.541/.386, 9 HR, 26 RBI, 1.84 K/BB (35/19)
2B Robert Moore (37 G) .286/.551/.394, 10 HR, 32 RBI, 6-6 SB, 1.07 K/BB (31/29)
C Casey Optiz (33 G) .261/.518/.432, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 3-3 SB, 0.86 K/BB (19/22)
CF Christian Franklin (38 G) .284/.553/.424, 9 HR, 35 RBI, 8-11 SB, 1.76 K/BB (44/25)
SS Jalen Battles (37 G) .257/.360/.356, 3 HR, 26 RBI, 5-6 SB, 1.95 K/BB (39/20)
Three weeks ago, Arkansas led LSU by three homers for the national lead. Today, with one fewer game played, they now hold a fourteen home run advantage over the Tigers (74 to LSU’s 60). Arkansas’ offense is what you would call “high octane.” They don’t just get hits at the right time, they get big hits at the right time. In the SEC, their average sits just above LSU’s at .257, but the advantage lies in the additional 41 RBI scored in league play and their robust .432 slugging percentage. For reference, the Major League SLG average is around .410 over the last ten years, so that’s a good bit of extra base hits. Arkansas is one of those teams who has been very successful at erasing those late inning deficits with the help of big extra base hits with men on base, which is why it has gotten away with its bullpen faltering a little bit.
This offense isn’t really ‘led’ by anyone in particular. They all hit the ball really well. Freshman RF Cayden Wallace has garnered SEC Freshman of the Week honors twice this season already, while junior CF Christian Franklin and sophomore 2B Robert Moore were named to the Golden Spikes Preseason Watchlist and have continued to perform at that high level as the season has continued right along. Catcher Casey Optiz, too, has won an SEC Player of the Week award this season. So, they truly are just a very well rounded lineup 1-9. The key with this offense is just pitchers hitting their spots, because they don’t miss and will put the ball over the fence when you do.
Three Keys for the Tigers
1. Get to the Pen
Much like LSU, Arkansas has very good starting pitchers and a couple established bullpen roles, but the rest are still very much fluid. Especially with their Sunday starter this weekend also up in the air depending on how relief goes the first two games. Friday night’s starter is a lefty with good off-speed offerings, and its no secret that the Tigers are a chasing team and it’s going to be tempting, but making him work and driving his pitch count up and getting him out of the ball game will certainly not hurt.
2. Jordy T! (Jordan Thompson)
Man, has this kid been fun to watch come out of his shell the last three weeks or what? When Coach Paul Mainieri put Thompson at shortstop and Cade Doughty came back from injury and he went to third base, it undoubtedly made the infield exponentially stronger defensively, however offensively it didn’t change much. But, over the last three series, with Thompson’s barrels starting to find grass (or clearing the wall), AND the spectacular play at short, it’s like it has added a whole other dimension to the offense.
Getting production from the second half of the order was something that LSU was desperate for early on and was a huge reason for not succeeding as much as they could have been. Thompson coming into his own, along with Giovanni DiGiacomo coming back from injury, and Cade Beloso starting to show signs of breaking out has been massive for 5-8 in the Tigers lineup, and if they can continue the upward trend it can be huge for the Tigers this weekend when offense is definitely going to be needed for a series victory.
3. No Johnny Wholestaff
Okay we get it, Johnny Wholestaff is the longest tenured player in NCAA history. He deserves playing time. But really. If whomever you decide to start on Sunday is throwing well after 3 innings, do not pull him so he can throw against Southern on Tuesday, or so someone else can get some work in against the No. 1 team in the nation. I get it, you don’t want him to see the order a second time through. But, it is May. LSU is literally at the do or die at the point of the season. 6-12 in the SEC, the Tigers are playing to just get into the SEC Tournament, to have a prayer at a regional at this point. Ride the hot hand, not the gut feeling. Every inning early that you pull your starter is just another that you have to entrust to Johnny, and at this point are we really there yet?
Prediction: 2-1 Arkansas.
I’m extraordinarily optimistic this week and I think that LSU has the ability to take two of three this weekend. But, If I were a betting person and not someone with 90% purple and gold wardrobe, I’d go with just one win. I think the offense will struggle to adjust to the lefty on Friday night, but conversely, I think Landon Marceaux goes out and shoves. He didn’t have his best stuff last week against Ole Miss, but he battled his tail off and the Tigers ended up winning the game. I don’t see him having two games like that in a row. I think Friday we see vintage Landon. AJ Labas on Saturday is my question mark and is why I ultimately gave it 2-1 to Arkansas. He threw 126 pitches in his complete game gem last week in Oxford, and I don’t know how he’s going to rebound with the type of offense and at bats that Arkansas puts together. Sunday, with both teams going with a “we have no idea” approach, it really is anyone’s guess. I give the advantage Sunday to Arkansas, simply because of LSU’s recent bullpen management strategy. That eight run implosion last week is still fresh in my mind with an extremely high powered offense rolling into town. I sure hope I’m wrong, and that the Box is PACKED this weekend with Purple and Gold, and perhaps a marsupial or two.
Game 1- Friday, 6:00pm, SECN
LSU- Jr. RH Landon Marceaux (4-3, 2.10 ERA, 60 IP, 13 BB, 72 K)
UA- Jr. LH Patrick Wicklander (2-1, 2.20 ERA, 41 IP, 14 BB, 44 K)
Game 2- Saturday, 6:30pm, SECN+
LSU- Jr. RH AJ Labas (3-0, 3.15 ERA, 60 IP, 10 BB, 56 K)
UA- So. RH Peyton Pallette (1-2, 3.98 ERA, 43 IP, 16 BB, 56 K)
Game 3- Sunday, 2:00pm, SECN+