HOOVER, Ala.—Indisputably, the root cause of Louisiana State's second-half slump was unreliable pitching. The Tigers too often were forced to play from behind because their starters were hit hard early, and they struggled to protect leads late in large part because closer Matty Ott was going through his own rough patch.
But for the second straight day Thursday, the Tigers got encouraging signs that their pitching is on the mend—which seems to be helping the defending national champions rediscover their missing swagger. LSU continued its resurgence with a 7-5 win against Vanderbilt behind eight strong innings from starter Austin Ross, and Ott escaped a jam in the ninth to preserve the victory.
There might not be a coach in college baseball who offers the media more candid, insightful analysis than LSU's Paul Mainieri. I had an extended conversation with Mainieri on the field after the game, so I'll let him break down Thursday's victory and its ramifications for the Tigers.
Ross allowed four runs on four hits and two walks while striking out seven over eight-plus innings, and held Vandy hitless from the third through the eighth. His M.O. all season has been that one bad innings proves his undoing; today his bad inning was the third, when Vandy scored three runs, but he rebounded quickly to dominate thereafter.
Mainieri: "The kid is a dominating pitcher except for that one inning when he seems to give up multiple runs, but you just never know when that inning's going to happen. Usually it happens in the fourth or the fifth, today it was the second. But I really didn't fault him all that much. They hit the ball. It wasn't like he was walking batters. I thought the kid showed a lot, he kept challenging hitters . . . He wasn't trying to nibble too much, and I think he really was very, very aggressive, and even his slider, he had good depth on his slider, he was keeping it down and he was throwing it for strikes too. I just think he was masterful tonight. I think he pitched as well as he possibly can tonight."
The spacious dimensions of Regions Park made it easier for Ross to attack hitters, and also might explain why the first two days of this tournament have featured so many strong pitching performances.
Mainieri: "I mentioned last night how much we love this ballpark, because in the SEC, so many of the parks are small, and sometimes it forces your pitchers to not be aggressive, because they're a little bit afraid to challenge hitters because they're afraid that a pop fly is going to fly out of the park. And here you can be so much more aggressive. Obviously you can still hit a home run, but it lends towards pitchers being much more aggressive. We've seen some great pitched games in this tournament, and I think that's why."
Ross' strong outing made life easier for LSU's offense. It's obvious that the Tigers are gaining confidence as a team, and it starts with pitching.
Mainieri: "Ross was really phenomenal. I mean, he was the story of the game. I was just saying how much fun it is to get good starting pitching. It allowed us to be very aggressive offensively—the hit-and-run, trying to take extra bases. We got thrown out a couple of times, so sometimes your aggressiveness will backfire, but it's an attitude. We ran a lot tonight, stole a base. Guys are playing loose and aggressively, because that helps loosen them up. But when you fall behind by five or six runs early, you can't do that, because it's silly to give easy outs and you can't take chances. That's why I say it's fun to coach when you have really good starting pitching because it allows you to do the things you believe in that I think loosens up the team and creates more offense."
The LSU fans grumbled when Mainieri came to the mound to remove Ross after he allowed a leadoff single in the ninth, but it was the right move for two reasons. First, as Mainieri explained, Ross' pitch count was up above 110, and he wants to make sure Ross has something left in the tank for regionals next week.
"Plus," Mainieri said, "we've got to get Matty Ott going. Matty's been working real hard in side work with coach David Grewe, and we think we've found the reason that his ball wasn't sinking as much as it was before. He did a little better today—not great, but a little bit better, and hopefully he'll get it going for us."
Ott's outing was an adventure, but the Tigers had a 7-3 lead when he entered, so they could afford to give him some leeway. After recording two quick outs, Ott surrendered an RBI single to Joe Loftus and an RBI double to Bryan Johns, then ended the game by striking out Mike Yastrzemski on a 79 mph back-foot slider. Ott's velocity was down from where he was during his dominating freshman year—he worked mostly at 84-85, touching 86 once and 88 once—and his fastball lacked the vicious life that made him so successful a year ago. Mainieri said the cause of his troubles has been mechanical, and he's making progress toward correcting it.
Mainieri: "He was just kind of getting underneath his ball, he was dropping his arm slot and getting underneath it instead of staying on top of the ball, and I think some of his mechanics were causing that to happen. I don't think he threw great tonight—it wasn't the old vintage Ott—but it was closer than what we've seen the last couple of times."
Progress is progress, and the Tigers have gotten it from Ott, Ross and Anthony Ranaudo in the last two days. Those three players, more than anyone else on the team, will determine how far LSU can go in the NCAA tournament.
So is LSU getting its swagger back?
"I think that's a good way to put it, but your swagger comes as a result of good starting pitching," Mainieri said. "When your starters go out and give you a chance to win, it's easy to feel confidence in yourselves. These two nights, we've had really good starting pitching. Let's see if we can find somebody who can give us a third starting pitching performance on Saturday."
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