Mainieri will be eyeing opponents as team closes in on goals
Paul Mainieri doesn’t mind admitting it.
His LSU Tigers are in a tight pennant race with three other teams for the Southeastern Conference baseball championship with two regular season weekends to go, so he’s planning on keeping track of how the other contenders are doing.
“I very much scoreboard watch,” Mainieri said Tuesday. “We’re in a position to accomplish whatever we want to accomplish. What other teams do affects us directly. So I admit it, but it doesn’t take away from what we have to do.”
First order of business for LSU (38-11, 16-8 SEC) was accomplished last weekend, when the Tigers took two of three games at Ole Miss to secure one of 10 spots for the SEC tournament May 22-27 in Hoover, Ala. A modest goal perhaps, but considering the Tigers missed out last season, one Mainieri said he “doesn’t take for granted.”
The stake now get progressively bigger, and more difficult to achieve.
With a four-game lead over Arkansas (34-15, 12-12) and Mississippi State (29-18, 12-12), LSU can clinch first place in the SEC West and a first-round SEC tournament bye this weekend if it wins the series against Vanderbilt (23-24, 8-16). That three-game set begins Friday at Alex Box Stadium.
But there are even bigger goals out there.
LSU is tied for first in the SEC overall standings with SEC East leader South Carolina (36-12, 16-8). The Gamecocks are at Georgia this weekend, then host LSU in a season-ending three-game set starting May 17.
That series would appear to be for the SEC overall championship, but the Tigers and Gamecocks have company in their championship chase.
Kentucky (37-11, 15-9) lost its first SEC series of the season last weekend, dropping two of three at home against Florida, but the Wildcats are in the thick of a chance for their first conference crown since 2006. UK hosts SEC West doormat Alabama this weekend, then finishes at Mississippi State.
Then there’s Florida. The Gators (35-13, 14-10) pulled themselves back into contention with the series win at Kentucky after dropping three of their previous five SEC series to Ole Miss, LSU and Arkansas. Florida hosts Mississippi State this weekend, then wraps up the regular season at Auburn.
After helping LSU slug it out through eight of its 10 conference series, senior shortstop Aaron Nola isn’t surprised that there’s such a logjam at the top.
“The SEC’s as balanced as you can get as a conference,” Nola said. “Every team you play, like Vandy, they’re as good as anyone in terms of pitching and hitting.”
Junior left fielder Raph Rhymes, who goes into the Vandy series still hitting an NCAA Division I-leading .500, doesn’t like to think about his batting average or the championship chase. Perhaps he plays with his back to the Alex Box scoreboard for a reason.
Still, Rhymes admitted, “these upcoming weekends are big.”
Senior utility player Grant Dozar is prepared for the ever increasing stakes the Tigers will play for. LSU last won the SEC regular-season title in 2009, a prelude to winning the College World Series.
“Coach told us after the Ole Miss series that from here on out we’re playing for championships,” he said. “We can wrap up the West this weekend if we can take care of business, then we go on the road to play for the overall SEC championship.”
The best part, Dozar said, is the Tigers have their destiny in their hands.
“It all comes down to us taking care of business,” he said.
Nola, Eades to switch
Mainieri said that he will flip-flop Ryan Eades and Aaron Nola in the pitching rotation against Vandy, throwing Nola on Saturday and Eades on Sunday.
Mainieri downplayed the move, saying he mainly wanted to give Eades an extra day to work with pitching coach Alan Dunn.
Since pitching a masterful 7.1 innings to beat Alabama on April 14, giving up one run and two hits, Eades (5-2, 3.62 ERA) is 0-1 with two other no-decisions.
Eades’ longest outing in his last three was against Georgia, when he gave up four runs and seven hits in a no-decision.
Nola (6-2, 3.90 ERA) is 2-2 in his past four starts, going at least five innings three times. His best outing was Sunday against Ole Miss, going seven innings and giving up three runs on seven hits.
Though the expectation is that the Tigers will be back in Alex Box Stadium during the NCAA tournament, LSU will honor its five seniors before first pitch of Saturday’s game.
The seniors include Austin Nola, Dozar, third baseman Tyler Hanover, catcher Jordy Snikeris and infielder Beau Didier.
Cox Sports Television announced Tuesday that it will televise Friday’s LSU-Vandy series opener. Saturday and Sunday’s games will be on SportsSouth.