LSU, Arkansas match strength vs. strength

LSU has the best hitting baseball team in the Southeastern Conference, and Arkansas has the best pitching staff going into those teams’ series beginning Friday in Fayetteville, Ark.

So it will be strength versus strength in the top halves of innings, but the key to the series could be defense. The Tigers have the best fielding percentage in the SEC (.983) and the Razorbacks have the worst (.960).

“For us to be fielding above .980, I think is remarkable, really,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “These are college kids, my goodness. Those are major-league fielding percentages in the .980s.”

That fielding percentage has been a big factor in the Tigers getting off to a school-record 32-2 start. They are ranked No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball and lead the SEC West with an 11-1 record, three games better than the 10th-ranked Razorbacks and Alabama.

LSU has made just 22 errors this season and first baseman Mason Katz’s error in a 16-2 victory against Southern on Wednesday night was the Tigers’ first in 65 innings.

The Tigers defense has been even better in SEC play, as they have committed just four errors and have a .991 fielding percentage. The Razorbacks have committed 27 errors in league play.

“I don’t know if that will continue one way or another,” Mainieri said, “but I think we have exceptional defensive players at every position.”

LSU’s overall fielding percentage is slightly higher than its .980 percentage last season, which led the SEC. The Tigers have four first-year starters — shortstop Alex Bregman, third baseman Christian Ibarra and outfielders Mark Laird and either Sean McMullen or Andrew Stevenson.

Laird and Stevenson give LSU more speed in the outfield, and Bregman and Ibarra have done well handling the left side of the infield, which had been anchored by shortstop Aaron Nola and third baseman Tyler Hanover for the last three-plus seasons.

“I think our team is a better defensive team this year, even though we don’t have Austin Nola, the best defensive shortstop I’ve ever had,” Mainieri said. “I think our outfield defense is better. I think overall our left side of the infield defense has been really solid.”

Mainieri called junior Ty Ross — who hasn’t committed an error, has picked off three base runners and thrown out seven of 12 base stealers — “the best defensive catcher in the country.”

LSU has not only been outstanding defensively in SEC play, but it has taken advantage of its opponents’ relative defensive shortcomings.

The Tigers have not committed more errors than their opponent in any SEC game and have matched their opponent’s total in just four games.

They have not committed more than one error in an SEC game and their opponents have committed 18 errors against them in SEC play.

As a result, the Tigers have been able to score 14 unearned runs in league games. LSU has not allowed an unearned run in SEC play.

“The way we’re hitting,” Katz said, “if a team happens to give us an error, it seems like the next guy is going to come up and get a hit. Whenever the other team gives you a base runner or puts an extra runner in scoring position, taking advantage of that is huge especially going against a pitching staff like (the Razorbacks) have.”

Arkansas, which has the best team ERA in the country (1.56), has a potent 1-2 punch in its rotation. It will start junior right-hander Barrett Astin on Friday and junior right-hander Ryne Stanek, who’s projected to be a high first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft this summer, on Saturday.

Astin got two of the losses out of the bullpen in LSU’s three-game sweep last season, giving up a run in 1.1 innings on Saturday and another run in three innings Sunday. Stanek started Saturday and gave up six hits and one run in seven innings.

“They’re completely different,” Katz said. “Astin is a sinker and slider guy. He throws a lot of off-speed pitches and hits the corners really well, whereas Stanek is a power guy and throws in the mid-to-high 90s and has a hard slider. We’ve seen them for a couple of years, and it’s going to be a very good battle.”

The Razorbacks have plenty of hard throwers on their pitching staff.

“I told our players that after Astin gets taken out of the game (Friday night), that’s probably the last guy throwing under 90 miles an hour that you’ll see the entire weekend,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s going to be a great challenge, not only for our hitters against their pitchers but for their pitchers against our hitters.

“I think one thing that people lose sight of in this matchup is that we’ve got a pretty good pitching staff ourselves. I’m excited to see their hitters against our pitchers.”

The Tigers have the third-best ERA in the SEC (2.39) and the Razorbacks have the ninth-highest batting average (.276).

LSU has won 14 straight games and is tied with Vanderbilt (11-1) for the overall SEC lead. LSU has won nine straight SEC games, its longest league win streak since the 2008 team won 12 straight conference games.