Tigers hope heart of the order heats up

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, left, first baseman Mason Katz and left fielder Raph Rhymes celebrate the first of Katz's two home runs during a March 9 game against Washington at Alex Box Stadium. Katz leads the nation with 49 RBIs. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, left, first baseman Mason Katz and left fielder Raph Rhymes celebrate the first of Katz's two home runs during a March 9 game against Washington at Alex Box Stadium. Katz leads the nation with 49 RBIs.

It’s no coincidence the LSU baseball team’s won-lost record in Southeastern Conference play has dropped simultaneously with a drop in productivity from the middle three hitters in its batting order.

The third-ranked Tigers (16-5 in SEC play) lead the West Division by 2½ games over second-place Arkansas, but four of those losses have come in the past three weekends after an 11-1 start in conference play.

During those three weekends, Alex Bregman, Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes have not hit as well as they did leading up to a series at Arkansas three weeks ago.

Those three and the rest of the team will try to heat up again when LSU opens a series against Florida at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Alex Box Stadium.

“We’re the heart of the order, so it’s our job to drive in runs, get on base and manufacture things,” Rhymes said before practice Wednesday. “But one through nine, I feel like we have a tough out, so if you get three, four and five you still have these other guys that are pretty tough outs.”

That’s what happened in the Tigers’ only victory against South Carolina last weekend. LSU won the opener 5-2 even though the middle third was a combined 1 for 12.

The bottom third of Ty Ross, JaCoby Jones and Jared Foster was a combined 6 for 10 and leadoff hitter Sean McMullen had two hits and drove in three runs.

“Our team has done a really good job of picking us up,” Katz said. “JaCoby and Ty have come on so strong when I’ve gone kind of cold and Bregman hasn’t hit as well as he has or when Raph was cold. When the middle of your lineup is hitting its best and you’re still winning that’s a sign of a really good team.”

Bregman has been one of the top freshmen in the country and leads the team with a .395 batting average but he has hit just .279 during the past three weekends after hitting .462 in the first four SEC series.

Katz leads the team with 13 home runs and 61 runs batted in, but his RBI in a 7-3 victory against McNeese State on Tuesday night was his first in 12 games. He hasn’t homered in the past 18 games after matching last season’s team-leading total after just 28 games.

“That’s the game of baseball,” Katz said. “You’re going to go through some woes here and there. You’re not going to be hot the whole year long. I knew I wasn’t going to go through the whole year and the postseason on the tear I was on in the beginning.”

Coach Paul Mainieri moved Katz from the No. 5 spot to No. 4 in a swap with fellow senior Rhymes five games ago. Rhymes, who’s hitting .331 for the season, has hit .275 the past three weekends after hitting .295 in the first four SEC series.

The drop off in the middle of the order has been mitigated by Christian Ibarra hitting .342 in league play as well as McMullen (.333) and Jones (.307) hitting better in SEC play than they have overall. Foster made his first three SEC starts last weekend and went 5 for 11.

Jones has eight hits in the 13 at-bats he has had since returning to the starting lineup after a brief benching two weeks ago.

Mainieri said he wasn’t sure if the benching had anything to do with Jones’ resurgence.

“But he sure does look a lot more comfortable at the plate,” Mainieri said. “He’s getting some good swings and he’s had some really big hits for us.”

Jones was 3 for 3 against McNeese and he has batted .357 during the past three weekends.

“It’s good to see JaCoby get going,” Rhymes said. “He’s got some confidence. With him producing, our lineup can be pretty dangerous.”

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan called LSU’s lineup “arguably the best lineup in the league one through nine.”

“Bregman is fun to watch,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s aggressive in all phases of his game and he’s probably mature beyond his years. They’ve got some other good hitters around him too.”

Ultimately, if the Tigers are going to win at the rate they were winning at during the early part of SEC play, they’ll need the middle third to similarly revert to their earlier form.

“Two of them are extremely veteran players and Bregman is one of the best players in the country, so I don’t really worry about them at all,” Mainieri said, “but I certainly would love to see the three of them clicking together like they were earlier.

“If you’re going to win championships, your best players have to rise up and lead your team and those are our best players right there in the heart of our order. So when those three are swinging the bat well at the same time I think we have a pretty formidable lineup.”

In addition to ending his RBI drought against McNeese, Katz had his first multihit game since April 10. Bregman went out his first three times but had an RBI single in his final at-bat in the sixth. Rhymes didn’t have a hit but he did drive in a run with a sacrifice fly.

“I’ve been waiting patiently for them to get back to doing clicking at the same time,” Mainieri said. “I have an inkling that it might be right around the corner. Let’s hope it starts this weekend.”