Tigers head to NCAA softball regional with hitting on the upswing

The draw fell perfectly for LSU at the Southeastern Conference softball tournament.

The Tigers knocked out third-seeded Missouri, while Kentucky dumped No. 2 seed Tennessee and set up a winnable semifinal Friday.

Old habits in issuing walks and stranding runners on base cost the Tigers, though. A two-RBI double in the top of the ninth inning sent LSU back to Baton Rouge but didn’t do enough to derail a month in which the program built momentum going into the NCAA tournament.

“It could have gone either way,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “I feel really good about the spot we’re in.”

The Tigers (35-22), who open up at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Louisville (36-20) in the Tucson regional, have still won eight of their past 10 games, including a recent seven-game winning streak.

While they have to travel two time-zones west to No. 11 seed Arizona, the draw at Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium isn’t the most daunting one LSU could have been dealt. The four teams in the pod have an average RPI of 59.3, which ties it for 10th among the 16 regional sites.

Granted, the host Wildcats are 28-2 in Tucson behind an offense that led the nation with 95 home runs. Yet LSU, which played the nation’s toughest schedule this season, didn’t seem fazed.

“It’s nothing really all that new for us,” pitcher Ashley Czechner said.

But the Cardinals, the American Athletic Conference tournament champions, come first.

The pitching staffs, at least statistically, are a push. Louisville ranks No. 74 nationally in ERA, and the Tigers are just five spots behind them. But the difference may be whether LSU’s offense will be as consistent as it was over the final month, when LSU went 16-7 and won its final five SEC series.

Ahead of the SEC tournament, the Tigers’ .311 batting average held level, and their .477 slugging percentage slightly dipped. LSU averaged 6.6 per game — an increase of 2.0 — and produced with runners aboard.

In the circle, Czechner (13-12 has trimmed her ERA to 3.33, nipped a slight tendency to walk batters, and moved to the front of the rotation. Freshman Baylee Corbello (17-8) has a 3.13 ERA over the past month — almost a run more than she was allowing before April — but has been buoyed a surging offense.

“Ashley Czechner is throwing really well, and that’s an added bonus to the offense,” Torina said.

Against Kentucky, though, the Tigers stranded seven runners on base while its four hottest hitters — Bianka Bell, Sahvanna Jaquish, Tammy Wray and Alison Falcon — went just 2-of-12 at the plate.

The semifinal loss to the Wildcats stands as an outlier for a group hitting a combined .387 with 14 home runs and 64 RBIs along with a .655 slugging percentage since the beginning of April. Instead, LSU focuses on its 6-0 victory against Missouri as a the barometer of how it’s faring.

And the Tigers are confident the style can travel. Going 9-3 in road or neutral-site games — including a 6-2 record at struggling foes in South Carolina and Ole Miss — is their best evidence.

“We do a lot better when we’re out of Baton Rouge,” shortstop Bell said. “I think we can do a little too much trying to please our fans. We get tensed up and a little tight.”

Note

LSU assistant coach Howard Dobson was named to the 25-member coaching pool for the 2015-16 competition seasons, the Amateur Softball Association and USA Softball announced.