East: LSU gets into meat of SEC slate

By LES EAST

Advocate sportswriter

We’re hearing a lot about March Madness these days, but with all due respect to that basketball stuff, the biggest thing going on around here is baseball.

A lot of people will be keeping an eye on how their brackets are holding up, but their focus will be on Alex Box Stadium.

The No. 3-ranked LSU baseball team finally begins its first home Southeastern Conference series when Auburn arrives Friday night, and few days on the sports calendar are as big a deal as this one.

“This is really what the fans have been waiting for — the SEC competition to start rolling in and these big games,” senior first baseman Mason Katz said Thursday. “It’s not only fun for us, but it’s fun for everybody that comes out.”

A lot more folks figure to start coming out Friday night. Most college baseball programs would love to draw the kind of crowds that LSU draws for nonconference games, but when league play starts, attendance tends to spike and that’s a primary reason the Tigers have led the nation in attendance each of the last 17 seasons.

The gap between the paid attendance and actual attendance numbers that LSU announces at every game will shrink dramatically this weekend. There will be a louder buzz in The Box because it’s SEC time.

Though Auburn isn’t the most highly regarded opponent that will visit the Box during the next two months, LSU coach Paul Mainieri and his players know that Auburn is a good example of why the SEC is the premiere baseball league in the country.

Auburn has won the past three series against LSU, including one at The Box two years ago. Virtually anyone you play in the SEC is going to present a greater challenge than anyone you play outside of the SEC.

There are exceptions, but not many.

In the three-plus seasons since LSU last won a series against Auburn, LSU is 53-47 against SEC opponents and 85-11 in regular-season nonconference games.

Those midweek and other preseason games are important and they help prepare teams for SEC competition. But SEC competition is on a much higher level; the teams know it and the fans know it.

LSU got off to a solid start in SEC play when it went to Starkville, Miss., last weekend and won two out of three games against Mississippi State, which was ranked No. 11 at the time.

But that was just three of 30 league games. All 10 of the three-game series inspire greater intensity and require better pitches, better at bats, better base-running and better defense than midweek or preconference weekend games or series do.

So although the win at State was a good first step in the league, Auburn represents the first of nine chances to give that step beck if LSU doesn’t continue to improve.

“We went there and did what we wanted to do,” Katz said of last weekend’s trip. “Now we’ve got a new series coming. I know it’s a cliché but since I’ve been here we’ve learned that you really do have to take it one game at a time.”

Home game No. 1 arrives Friday night.