LSU is hitting the stretch run of the regular season as it embarks on its final 10 games with a three-game series at Ole Miss beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
The Tigers (36-10) have matched their win total from last season, and with a 14-7 Southeastern Conference record, they lead the Western Division by three games over Arkansas and four games over Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss (30-16, 10-11).
LSU, which is tied with East-leading Kentucky and South Carolina for the overall league lead, can move closer to a division title with a successful series against the Rebels.
“We always look forward to the beginning of SEC play and then time really flies,” Tigers outfielder Mason Katz said. “It feels like we’ve barely been playing, and we’re coming toward the end of the regular season. This time last year is when we really picked it up and finished strong. We’ve gotten off to a much better start this year, and we’re looking to finish strong again.”
LSU won nine of its last 12 SEC games last season, but it was not enough to overcome a 4-14 start and it failed to qualify for the SEC tournament and ultimately the NCAA tournament. Though a berth into the SEC tournament seems a virtual lock, especially with the field having been expanded from eight to 10 teams, Katz said the Tigers aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We’re not sealed into the SEC tournament,” he said. “Coach (Paul Mainieri) has told us that no team has won 15 SEC games and not gotten into the tournament. We’ve got 14, so we’ve got to get at least one more, then keep fighting to do more. We remember the feeling from last year. We don’t want to just make it to the tournament. We want to expand on that.”
The Tigers, who won two out of three at home against Ole Miss last season, have won one road series (Florida) and lost two (Auburn and Kentucky). After playing Vanderbilt at home next weekend, followed by a nonconference game against Nicholls State, they finish at South Carolina, perhaps the hottest team in the country.
“We have 10 really tough ballgames remaining,” Mainieri said. “We’re going to have to earn everything. Nobody is going to hand us anything, but we can smell the finish line. Everything is within our reach. That’s why we have to be so determined. We’re not going to have an easy time.”
The Rebels have the highest team batting average (.291) in SEC play and are third in all games (.307). They are led by second baseman Alex Yarbrough, a switch-hitter who is hitting .417 with 16 doubles, two triples, three homers and 39 RBIs. Left-handed-hitting first baseman Matt Snyder is batting .347 with 16 doubles, 10 homers and 48 RBIs.
“I know what type of hitters they have,” said LSU right-hander Kevin Gausman, who will start the opener. “They’re aggressive and have a lot of power in their lineup. They have some big left-handed hitters, so I have to focus on having a good changeup to those guys.”
Gausman is third in the nation with 97 strikeouts and leads the LSU staff, which leads the league with 421 strikeouts. Ole Miss will start right-hander Bobby Wahl (5-1, 2.09 ERA).
Tigers left fielder Raph Rhymes continues to lead the nation in batting average (.503). He has a 12-game hitting streak and has reached base safely in 26 consecutive games. Katz is hitting .348 with team highs of 13 doubles and eight homers.
“We’re hitting the home stretch, and we need to bear down,” Rhymes said. “Every SEC series is big so we’re not going to say any series is bigger than the last. We have to go about our business the same way we always have.”
LSU has lost eight of its past nine games in Oxford. In the Tigers’ last two trips there, they have lost five of six, three of the losses coming by one run and another by two.
“I’ve played at Ole Miss and it’s always a blast,” shortstop Austin Nola said. “It’s good competition. We know if we continue to take care of business we’ll accomplish our goal.”
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