Heart of LSU batting order heats up in sweep of Florida

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU's Alex Bregman sprints to second base on his double in the sixth inning Sunday against Florida at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers scored eight runs in the sixth and won handily, 18-6.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU's Alex Bregman sprints to second base on his double in the sixth inning Sunday against Florida at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers scored eight runs in the sixth and won handily, 18-6.

The heart of the LSU’s batting order was back in form during a three-game sweep of Florida.

The Tigers’ 3-4-5 hitters — Alex Bregman, Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes — each had their most productive weekend in a month, and it helped spur the team’s first sweep in a month.

“I’m pretty excited about the way those guys swung the bats,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said after the Tigers’ 18-6 victory Saturday.

Bregman was 6-for-12 for the weekend with four runs and three RBIs. Katz batted .364 (4-for-11) with a run and RBIs, and Rhymes went 5-for-10 with three runs and an RBI.

No. 6 hitter Christian Ibarra stayed hot, hitting .625 (5-for-8) with two RBIs and three runs.

“When we’re swinging like that in a row, especially with the way Ibarra is hitting behind Raph, it’s dangerous,” Katz said. “You can’t really pick and choose who you want to throw to.”

The Gators tried that in the fifth inning Saturday when they pitched around Katz with Bregman on third and walked him. The count to Rhymes was 1-1 after Katz stole second and Florida intentionally walked him to load the bases. Ibarra followed with a two-run double, and a third run scored on a fielding error on the play.

“I think we answered the little challenge that was given to us in the locker room,” Bregman said. “We knew we needed to swing the bats a little better for the rest of the season.

“This weekend was a lot better. We’re going to be just fine — trust me. We had a rough few weeks, but we’re back.”

Division lead increases

Mainieri admitted to being “as guilty as anybody of scoreboard-watching,” and he got some good news not long after LSU completed its sweep.

Kentucky scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Arkansas 4-3 in their series finale, extending the Tigers’ lead over the second-place Razorbacks to 3½ games in the SEC West.

Any combination of Tigers victories and Razorbacks losses totaling three will give LSU a second consecutive division title.

The Tigers will need some help to repeat as overall champions, because East Division leader Vanderbilt (21-2) holds a 2½-game lead on them.

Number-crunching Nola

After throwing two shutouts in his last three starts, sophomore right-hander Aaron Nola is the first Tigers pitcher to throw two shutouts in a season since Greg Smith did it in 2005.

Nola has thrown four consecutive complete games, allowing just 17 hits in those 36 innings. His ERA during that stretch is 1.00. He has three walks and 31 strikeouts.

Mainieri said Sunday he’s leaning toward sticking with Cody Glenn on Thursday and Nola on Friday for this week’s series at Texas A&M.

Glenn pitched well in his first series-opening start against Florida, giving up five hits and two runs, one earned, in 6.2 innings.

Mainieri also said he’ll look for an opportunity to reduce the number of pitches Nola throws in one of these last two regular-season starts, though Nola hasn’t really been taxed in his complete games, averaging about 110 pitches.

Midweek work on weekend

When the Tigers broke open Sunday’s game with an eight-run sixth, Mainieri decided to pull starter Ryan Eades, who said he didn’t want to come out of the game but understood the coach’s thinking.

LSU has no midweek game this week because of final exams, so the last three innings were an opportunity for relievers Will LaMarche, Kurt McCune, Kevin Berry, Brent Bonvillain and Nick Rumbelow to get work they might not have gotten otherwise.

“I was desperate to try and get those guys in so they wouldn’t go stale,” Mainieri said.

The Tigers might carry a 12th pitcher instead of a 16th position player on their roster for the SEC Tournament at the end of the month, Mainieri said.

Unique first pitch

Track and field legend Carl Lewis threw out a ceremonial first pitch as part of Organ Awareness Day.

Lewis is a longtime advocate for organ and tissue donation who joined with local author
Jeffrey Marx to form the Wendy Marx Foundation for Organ Donor Awareness, named for Marx’s late sister.

Instead of throwing the traditional pitch, Lewis — a versatile nine-time Olympic gold medalist — adopted a sprinter’s stance on the mound before running the ball to Rhymes at home plate.