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WEEKEND GAMETHREAD: at Kentucky

Bluegrass baseball

The LSU baseball team makes its way up to Lexington, Kentucky this weekend for a three game conference set with the University of Kentucky. The Tigers (18-11, 1-8 SEC) and the Wildcats (19-7, 5-4 SEC) are coming off a weekend in which Kentucky was swept by Mississippi State and LSU was swept by Vanderbilt, so it’s fair to say both squads will be looking to get back on track during this weekend’s series. To start the SEC season, the Wildcats also own a series win against Mizzou and a clean sweep at Auburn to go along with their trifecta of losses against Mississippi State over Easter weekend. Although it’s only the fourth series of the conference slate, nothing indicates that this is not an absolute must win series for the Tigers, but it won’t come easy. On the road, against a scrappy, veteran Wildcats team that will feature five upperclassmen in their first 6 spots in their order, the Tigers will have to be on their A game to come out on top. Not to mention, Kentucky is riding a wave of momentum coming off of a huge midweek rivalry win against #5 Louisville on Tuesday.

UK PITCHING

The Starters

So. RHP Cole Stupp (3-1) 1.91 ERA, 37.2 IP, 8 BB, 36 K, .231 BAA

Fr. RHP Ryan Hagenow (1-1) 2.11 ERA, 21.1 IP, 11 BB, 25 K, .187 BAA

So. RHP Zack Lee (2-2) 4.18 ERA, 28 IP, 7 BB, 24 K, .294 BAA

The Pen

Sr. RHP Daniel Harper 10 app, 0.82 ERA, 11 IP, 10 K, .158 BAA

Jr. LHP Dillon Marsh 6 app, 2.25 ERA, 12 IP, 15 K, .136 BAA

Sr. RHP Sean Harney 10 app, 3.09 ERA, 5 SV, 11.2 IP, 19 K, 2.79 BAA

Fr. RHP Austin Strickland 7 app, 2.92 ERA, 12.1 IP, 20 K, .146 BAA

While Kentucky’s pitching is not something that jumps off the page when you look at it, in comparison to the rest of the SEC for the entire season, they are actually the fourth most successful pitching staff in a stout SEC pitching year. They sport a 3.24 ERA and opponents are hitting just .224 off of them. The Wildcats’ offense is very experienced, but they come into this series with two sophomores and a freshman as the listed starting pitchers for this weekend’s games. Friday’s starter, righty Cole Stupp has been the most consistently successful, winning three of his six starts with an ERA south of 2. Freshman right hander Ryan Hagenow, who will get the call on Saturday, was the number 8 ranked pitcher in the country last year. He has also pitched extraordinarily well for a true freshman. He limits his damage by not allowing a lot of solid contact and strikes out an impressive 10.66 batters per 9 innings pitched. While his numbers don’t show off as much success as his comrades at first, Sunday starter RH Zack Lee (not that one…), will feature a hard sinker and a slider that keeps hitters off balance.

When it comes to relief pitching for Kentucky, their bullpen is very good. They exhibit excellent command, and have hung on to win 9 one or two-run contests this season thus far. They feature a lefty in Dillon Marsh, who allows batters on at just a .136 clip; a high strikeout closer in Sean Harney, who possesses a 94 MPH FB and a hammer curve in his arsenal; and another impressive freshman Austin Strickland, who has struck out 20 batters in just 12 IP. All in all, they aren’t quite Vanderbilt’s staff, but they cannot be overlooked for either their experience, or their abilities.

The Cats’ Bats

C Coltyn Kessler (20 G) .442/.596/.545, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 0.76 K/BB (10/13)

INF Austin Schultz (26 G) .333/.454/.410, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 1.92 K/BB (25/13)

INF Ryan Ritter (26 G) .321/.440/.383, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 2.12 K/BB (17/8)

1B TJ Collett (26 G) .315/.685/.451, 9 HR, 31 RBI, 1.33 K/BB (20/15)

OF Oraj Anu (26 G) .279/.452/.330, 4 HR, 19 RBI, 4.5 K/BB (27/6)

Kentucky’s offense, much like its pitching, doesn’t necessarily evoke oohs and ahhs when you look at their numbers, but for the season they trail just Vanderbilt and Auburn in the conference in average (.288 in 26 G). They are not big boppers, however, as they come in second to last in the conference in big flies with just 27 (Arkansas 50, LSU 47). When they get on base, they will try and run. C Coltyn Kessler, who is getting the bulk of their starts behind the dish now, has been a driving force in their offense along with 1B TJ Collett, who has a very robust .685 SLG to go along with his nine homers and 31 RBI. The Wildcats also hit right handed pitching at a far better clip than they do left handed pitchers (.307vs.241), which doesn’t match up very well with LSU’s almost exclusively right handed staff. While they don’t walk much, and their offensive numbers aren’t very showy, the Tigers pitching staff cannot look past them. Just the veteran presence atop their order, with five of six being upperclassmen, is enough to be able to go up toe-to-toe with the young, struggling, Tigers pitching staff.

Three Keys for the Tigers

1. Runners (not) Left on Base

LSU’s offense has really been a tale of two tapes this year. During non-conference, they were confident and knocking the cover off of the ball. When the SEC season started, all of that went out of the window. The biggest thing that’s plagued the Tigers all season long, however has been leaving runners on base during their at bats. During the series vs Vanderbilt, the Tigers left 22 runners on base, and 25 the weekend prior in the three game series in Knoxville against the Volunteers. The Vandy series was a bit more understandable because their pitching was dominant and they crushed the ball the first two games, but at Tennessee the three Tiger losses were decided by a total of four runs. Scratching across a few of those 25 runners could have really come in handy for the LSU offense.

This series, in my opinion, will be much more akin to the Tennessee series than it will be the Vanderbilt series, so this is especially crucial this weekend. Those one and two run games need to go the good guys’ way instead of the bad guys’ way if the Tigers want a shot of making a run to get in the SEC Tournament and ultimately in the NCAA postseason. A lot of it is lineup construction, as its been the same few guys coming up with several runners on base and not converting repeatedly. As a result, LSU Head Coach Paul Mainieri is still trying to find that guy in the middle of the order who will successfully drive their teammates in with relative consistency.

2. Base Knocks are Cool, Too

It is no secret that the LSU offense has relied heavily on its firepower to get them out of jams many times this season. The Tigers are third nationally in home runs, so it hasn’t been a terrible situation or strategy prior to facing SEC competition. However, when you get to SEC play its significantly harder to rely on the long ball to get you out of a jam when the pitching quality has increased so much from what you get in your non-conference slate. The Tigers have a habit of getting to the plate, when behind, and each of them just swings for the parking lot on every single pitch. Instead of working walks, hitting singles (or getting on base, period), and manufacturing runs, relying on the long ball against big time competition is risky. The Tigers desperately need to find offensive success on the weekends, and you cannot score if you don’t get on base. A solo home run when your team is down by five runs in the 8th is still awesome and exciting, don’t get me wrong. It just would be a lot more useful if there were a few runners on to drive in with that homer. You know, getting the best bang for your buck.

If the Tigers are to come out on top of the Wildcats this weekend and return to Baton Rouge with their first SEC series win of 2021, it will be essential that they are able get on base and successfully manufacture runs, rather than swinging for the fences and hoping to be bailed out with a dinger, or three.

3. Sunday Funday

With the devastating ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury to Jr. RHP Jaden Hill last weekend, the LSU coaches have been forced to move RS-Jr. RHP AJ Labas up from the Sunday spot to shoulder the Saturday starting job. The never-shaken Labas was pitching phenomenally on Sundays and has kept the Tigers in it nearly every outing despite not getting the best run support or fielding behind him. In six of his seven starts this year, Labas left with either a lead or a tie, yet has gotten only one decision on the year (1-0). He will undoubtedly take his bulldog mindset into the Saturday role and give the Tigers their best chance to win. That being said, it leaves a big hole in the staff. Sunday games are often seen by many as the “easiest game to win,” because nine out of ten weekends, you’re going up against the other team’s number three starter, and most teams cant field more than one or two really good pitchers. LSU cannot afford to drop any more Sunday contests, so Paul Mainieri and Alan Dunn will be forced to try and figure out who in the pen is most likely to give them similar outings to what they were getting on Sunday, and that’s a tall task.

True freshmen Garrett Edwards, Blake Money, and Will Hellmers have all been given the task of taking over the Sunday starting spot by Paul Mainieri. The problem is, the three of them are three of the first four relievers out of the Tigers bullpen when the starters night is through. He has said he will not make a determination until later in the series, presumably when he’s seen if he will have needed any, or all, of those guys to win games on Friday and Saturday. All eyes will be on whomever gets the call, because to gain ground in the SEC and climb their way out of the basement, the Tigers are going to need to win essentially every Sunday from here on out, and thus require someone who will be able to go out, be confident, shove, and give his guys a chance for a victory.

Prediction: 2-1 LSU

I am not a fan of making predictions because I feel like it’s hard for me to remove my purple and gold glasses sometimes, and go with my desired outcome rather than what the stats say and point to. This weekend is pivotal for the Tigers. Going down 1-11 or 2-10 in conference is absolutely unrecoverable at this point, so it’s simply not an option for LSU. This is a backs against the wall, see what you’re made of type series. I think that that realization, coupled with what looked like the best energy and body language in five weeks, in the dugout during the McNeese game on Tuesday, will provide an impetus for the Tigers offense to take off again. Landon Marceaux is coming off his worst outing of the season, and my money is on him rebounding Friday night and pitching like he did in his first 6 starts. AJ Labas will bring a new vibe to the mound for the Tigers in Game 2, and the fresh meat, no matter who they trot out on Sunday, will be a catalyst for getting the Sunday winning streak rolling. Offensively, if the Tigers can lay off of bad pitches and cut down their strikeouts, and Paul Mainieri decides to send out his best offense, their potential for success is unlimited. Tigers take games one and three, and although a sweep would be beautiful and much, much needed, my enthusiasm isn’t quite there for declaring a sweep after the last few weekends.

PITCHING MATCHUPS

Game 1 - Friday, 5:30 PM, SECN+

LSU— Jr. RH Landon Marceaux (2-3, 2.01 ERA, 40.1 IP, 11 BB, 47 K)

UK— So. RH Cole Stupp (3-1, 1.91 ERA, 37.2 IP, 8 BB, 36 K)

Game 2 - Saturday, 1:00 PM, SECN

LSU— RS Jr. RH AJ Labas (1-0, 3.26 ERA, 38.2 IP, 7 BB, 40 K)

UK—Fr. RH Ryan Hagenow (1-1, 2.11 ERA, 21.1 IP, 11 BB, 25 K)

Game 3 - Sunday, 12:00 PM, SECN+

LSU— TBA

UK— So. RH Zack Lee (2-2, 4.18 ERA, 28 IP, 7 BB, 24 K)