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The State of the Union is Not Good: The three questions facing LSU baseball

As the regular season comes to a close this weekend, here are three questions surrounding the program before postseason play starts next week.

Syndication: The Daily Advertiser
Catcher Hayden Travinski 25 as LSU takes on Mississippi State at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA. Sunday, May 14, 2023.

There has been a lot of heat around LSU’s baseball program as of late and there is some legitimacy on why the flames are getting set ablaze.

The Tigers have lost in back-to-back weekend series to both Auburn and Mississippi State. The Auburn series loss is at least understandable as they have been one of the hottest teams in college baseball at the moment.

However, losing to Mississippi State, who not only is the second-worst team in the conference but they also fired its pitching coach in the middle of the season. The lowlight of the series was that LSU was in a prime position to win game three to win the series but the Tigers blew a 13-4 lead to lose 14-13 to Mississippi State.

Due to the concerns around the program at the moment, here are three questions surrounding LSU at the moment.

Will the bullpen ever get fixed?

LSU’s bullpen in conference play has been awful. The bullpen reached a low point in last weekend’s series against Mississippi State. Although starters Paul Skenes, Ty Floyd and Javen Coleman all had great outings on the mound, the bullpen wasted those performances.

After LSU won the first game with a 12-1 run rule victory where Skenes hurled 13 strikeouts, LSU dropped its next two games in which both games involved LSU blowing a three or more run lead.

After Floyd hurled six innings and threw 10 strikeouts in one of his best games of the season, LSU blew its 4-1 lead to lose to the Bulldogs 9-4. While Floyd only allowed five hits through six innings, relievers Nate Ackenhausen, Thatcher Hurd and Riley Cooper allowed nine hits through three. LSU allowed six runs in the eighth, with five of those runs allowed by Hurd.

If you think that’s bad, you should probably stop reading this as this will make your brain explode.

In the third and final game of the series, LSU was leading 13-4 in the fourth inning and was on the verge of another run-rule victory over Mississippi State. The Tigers lost 14-13. Trust me, I’m just as confused as you are. Not only did LSU not score a single run, but LSU’s bullpen also allowed 10 in just five innings to lose.

If you think that’s bad, wait until you see the pitching stats for any LSU pitcher that has pitched at least 15 innings.

The bullpen hasn’t always been this bad in conference play. The bullpen was a huge reason why LSU won the Arkansas and Tennessee series. Heck, even before the injuries, LSU arguably had one of the best pitching staffs in the country.

However, the bullpen will be LSU’s downfall if something doesn’t happen fast.

Is Wes Johnson the problem?

There has been some chit-chat among LSU’s fanbase on whether or not Wes Johnson is a good pitching coach. The answer is of course, yes. His resume speaks for itself.

His first Twins staff in 2019 set a club record with 1,463 strikeouts, and he helped lead the team to back-to-back AL Central Division titles in 2019 and 2020. The 2020 Twins staff established a club record for strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched (9.38).

During his tenure as a college coach, 30 of Johnson’s pitchers have been drafted by MLB teams. Before accepting the job with the Twins, he was the pitching coach at Arkansas in 2017 and 2018, helping lead the Razorbacks to a national runners-up finish at the 2018 College World Series.

At Mississippi State in 2016, Johnson produced six pitchers that were selected in the MLB Draft, most notably Dakota Johnson as the 34th overall selection by the St. Louis Cardinals. After Mississippi State won only eight SEC games the season before Wes Johnson’s arrival, the 2016 Bulldogs captured the SEC regular-season title and advanced to an NCAA Super Regional.

Even though he isn’t totally at fault for the pitching struggles and the injuries to key members of the pitching staff, something needs to change.

In my opinion, LSU is pitching to no contact. I feel like this is the approach because of the large number of walks and hits.

Yes, LSU gets a ton of strikeouts, but the Tigers also fall behind on counts. So what’s the outcome? LSU’s pitchers will either get the strikeout, walk the batter, or have to groove a pitch after getting down in the count. That’s why the stat sheet looks so wacky.

This is an MLB approach without having MLB arms that can command the zone with their off-speed pitches. It works with Skenes, but he’s an MLB-caliber pitcher playing at the collegiate level. It also works well with Floyd. However, LSU does not have any pitchers that can use this approach at this current time because they do not have the attributes that Skenes and Floyd have.

Although the pitching struggles are not completely on Wes, he needs to change his approach with everyone not named Skenes and let the bullpen pitch, especially the younger guys such as Guidry and Herring. LSU doesn’t have the skill sets at this moment to execute what Wes is trying to do. It’s not a terrible approach, but this approach would be much better suited for next year’s team because they will all be a year older.

Will LSU be a national seed?

At this rate, it’s still a very high chance LSU will be a national seed come postseason play. However, if they keep playing the way they are, the Tigers will host but won’t be a national seed.

If LSU wants to keep improving its odds of gaining a national seed, it has to do two things.

First things first, LSU has to win its series against Georgia this weekend in Athens. Georgia is last in ERA in the SEC with a 6.81 ERA and LSU’s bats will have no problem scoring runs. However, the Bulldogs are in the top half of the league in batting average and are fifth in the SEC with 94 home runs, something that LSU’s bullpen will have to overcome.

Second, LSU must win two games in the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. It doesn’t matter how they do it or who they do it against.

LSU is already the No.5 team in the country and is currently fourth in RPI. If they take care of business this weekend and do as much as they can in Hoover, LSU will get a national seed.