South Carolina faces a tough test with the LSU Tigers coming to town. As you read in our preview, a lot is riding on the game for both teams.
To help understand LSU baseball, we engaged our Bloguin pals over at Saturday Night Slant. Check out our Q&A with them and make sure to visit their site for all your LSU sports news in the future....
1. LSU has won 40 games this year; what has been the key factor in reaching this milestone?
The biggest key to LSU having so much success this season has been their pitching staff , in particular the bullpen. After last season, LSU made a change on staff and hired Alan Dunn as the new pitching coach. He has made a world of difference. Kevin Gausman, a freshman a year ago, has turned into one of
college baseball's most dominant pitchers this year. He has developed great command of his stuff. But the bullpen has been the biggest difference. A year ago, LSU saw too many leads get blown. The team was just 5-8 in one run games (36-20 overall, 13-17 in SEC). Fast forward to this year, and LSU finds themselves an incredible 14-5 in one run games and right in the middle of the SEC Championship race. Having quality bullpen guys, to include a dominant closer, has been the difference. Look for names such as Chris Cotton, Joey Bourgeois, Nick Rumbelow, and Brent Bonvillain to make appearances this weekend. Cotton has been superb and virtually perfect to left handers.
The bats have been just OK this year, but the guys have had a tendency to pick each other up. They have found a way to get big hits when needed more often than not.
2. LSU (2009) and South Carolina (2010, 2011) have combined to win the last three College World Series titles. In your opinion, without being bias, is the SEC the top baseball conference in America?
I certainly think it's the best league, and I don't think too many would argue. With Florida as strong as they have been for the last three seasons, a typically strong Vanderbilt and Arkansas program, and an out of nowhere Kentucky team that may win the conference -- it's tough to find a league as deep as the SEC with top quality clubs. Ole Miss is another that has been a post season regular. Heck...since 2009, LSU hasn't really made that much noise until this season.
I don't see any other league that can come close to matching what the SEC can offer from the top half of the league year in and year out.
3. LSU is loaded with talented hitters like Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz. But who is the one hitter that USC fans and the Gamecocks baseball team needs to watch out for?
Assuming your question is referring to who to watch for, other than Rhymes and Katz. Because those two are definitely the guys that make LSU's offense go. Katz hits third in the order and Rhymes hits fourth. Between Katz's slugging (10 HRs, 15 2B, .579 SLG) and Rhymes' amazing consistency (.476 BA, 48 RBIs), it's tough for the opposition to deal with. Anytime LSU can get those two up with anyone on base, Tiger fans feel good about their chances for pushing at least one across.
But another guy to watch for right now is shortstop Austin Nola, who was recently promoted to the leadoff position in the order. In his two games at leadoff thus far, Nola is a perfect 6 for 6 with three walks. He has been fairly consistent for LSU this year, typically batting fifth or second in the order and his average has hovered around .300. But he has shown some more pop lately with a pair of home runs over the last couple of weeks (he has four on the season), and his average is up to .311. He has one of the highest on base percentages on the team at .429, so utilizing his ability to get on base makes sense with Katz/Rhymes right behind him. He doesn't have the speed you'd like from your leadoff guy, but LSU seems willing to sacrifice that right now in order to string together their best hitters and generate some offense.
4. The Gamecocks are 14-2 in their last 16 games, and 8-0 at home during that span. What does LSU have to do to win the series?
Carolina has definitely been on a great run, and they have a ton of momentum right now. LSU will be hard pressed to win this series on the road, but they're certainly capable of doing so.
Starting pitcher Ryan Eades has struggled lately. Earlier in the season, Eades was great. I felt like LSU had two quality Friday guys on staff between Gausman and Eades. But in four of his last five starts, he has been knocked around pretty good. The fifth start was an eight inning, one hit performance. Go figure. During his slump, Eades has been leaivng a lot of balls up in the zone and has paid for it. He has since been "demoted" to the Sunday role with freshman Aaron Nola taking over on Saturdays. Needless to say, it's not a good time of the year to have one of your best pitchers hit a slump.
So what does LSU have to do to win the series? I believe they need a quality start from Ryan Eades. Even if they get that, it still won't be easy. But I can't see them taking it without a quality outing from Eades.
5. Give us the prediction...who wins the series?
I think LSU has the goods to take one of the first two games from Carolina to set up a rubber match on Saturday. But right now, I just don't have much confidence in Ryan Eades to get the job done in Game three.
So (and I rarely do this) I'll pick against my Tigers and predict Carolina takes two of three this weekend.
Oh, we did do our part and respond about some USC stuff on their site so go read it - HERE.