Can LSU Snap Out Of Its Slow SEC Start?


Image credit: Michael Braswell III (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

A month ago, LSU was flying high. The Tigers were ranked No. 2 and coming off an impressive three-game sweep of the Astros Foundation Classic in Minute Maid Park, where they beat Texas, Louisiana and Texas State on a big stage. The reigning national champions looked like they were on their way to another exciting spring.

Today, LSU is in a much different spot. It is 20-10 overall and 2-7 in SEC play. The Tigers have lost their first three SEC series (at Mississippi State, Florida, at Arkansas) and, after losing Monday at home to Southern, they have lost six of their last seven games. It’s a little early to be concerned with RPI, but that has slipped to No. 41. LSU has not endured a stretch like this since 2021, when it started SEC play 1-8 and was swept in consecutive weekends by Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

So, as LSU prepares for a critical SEC series this weekend at home against Vanderbilt, what’s gone wrong, and can the Tigers correct it in time to meet their goals for this season?

The Rotation

LSU lost righthanders Paul Skenes and Ty Floyd from last year’s rotation. Skenes was the Player of the Year and the No. 1 overall pick, but Floyd’s importance as a steady No. 2 starter was also significant in the Tigers’ success. Replacing them was never going to be easy, but LSU hit the transfer portal and brought in righthander Luke Holman from Alabama and lefthander Gage Jump from UCLA. With Thatcher Hurd, who started Game 3 of the CWS finals, back in the fold, the rotation looked like a strength for the Tigers.

And it’s largely played out that way. Holman has pitched well at the front of the rotation, going 5-1, 1.39 with 61 strikeouts and 13 walks in 39 innings. In SEC play, he hasn’t been quite as sharp, twice not making it through five innings, but he also struck out 13 batters while holding Florida to one hit in six innings. Jump is 2-0, 3.42 with 35 strikeouts and 11 walks in 26.1 innings. He also was knocked out early by Arkansas and Mississippi State, but pitched well against Florida (5.2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 8 K).

The third spot in the rotation has again this season been unsettled. Hurd, as he did last season, has started slowly (1-4, 6.75, 28 IP, 13 BB, 35 K), and with the schedule shift the last two weeks to series beginning on Thursday, he’s returned to the bullpen, at least for now. Lefthander Javen Coleman (2-0, 4.50) started last Thursday at Arkansas and presents a solid option as a third starter (though LSU has not announced a third starter for this weekend). Freshman lefthander Kade Anderson (2-1, 3.22) started the season excellently as a midweek starter, but has scuffled in recent weeks, especially when used out of the bullpen in SEC play.

LSU has a solid rotation overall. Holman is a projected first-round pick and Jump probably goes off the board in the second round. Solidifying a third starter would help but the same can be said for all but a very small handful of teams nationally. The Tigers need Holman and Jump to be at something close to their best, but the rotation still looks like an area of strength.

The Bullpen

Coming into the season, I made a lot of the depth of the LSU pitching staff. That depth has not materialized yet.

Sophomore lefthander Griffin Herring has been far and away the Tigers’ best reliver and is 2-0, 2.84 with 25 strikeouts and six walks in 19 innings. Righthanders Gavin Guidry (1-0, 4.91), Will Hellmers (1-0, 0.93) and Fidel Ulloa (0-1, 3.97) have been solid. Veterans Justin Loer (2-0, 6.60), Nate Ackenhausen (2-3, 6.16) and Christian Little (0-0, 10.12) haven’t found consistency, and younger players haven’t stepped up to displace them.

Overall, the bullpen has not been a strength for the Tigers. It ranks 57th nationally in ERA, according to data compiled by Bradley Smart. But in SEC play, the bullpen has given up 38 runs (36 earned) in 38 innings over nine games.

While none of that is particularly encouraging, LSU is 19-1 when leading after six innings. Its only loss in that situation came March 23 against Florida, when LSU led 4-2 after seven innings and went on to lose, 6-4, in 11 innings. Otherwise, when given a late lead, the bullpen has protected it. What it hasn’t been as good at is holding opposing lineups at bay to give the offense a chance to come back or picking up a starter who doesn’t go deep into a game.

The Lineup

Johnson is one of the nation’s premier offensive coaches, and in his nine full seasons as a Division I head coach, only two of his teams have ranked outside the top 35 nationally in scoring – 2014 Nevada (128th) and 2016 Arizona (107th), both of which were his first season with the program.

There’s a long way to go, but LSU this year is 115th nationally in scoring, averaging 7.13 runs per game. In SEC play, it is averaging 4.67 runs per game, 13th in the conference.

After losing six regulars from the lineup it used in the CWS, most notably SEC player of the year Dylan Crews, LSU was always going to take a step back offensively in 2024. But this level of offensive production is still surprising.

All-American third baseman Tommy White leads the way at .328/.420/.582 with nine home runs. Catcher Hayden Travinski (.304/.455/.618, 8 HR) and outfielder Mac Bingham (.300/.421/.550, 7 HR) provide solid support and first baseman Jared Jones (.276/.433/.673, 10 HR) brings additional thump. Shortstop Michael Braswell III has been the team’s best hitter in SEC play, hitting .393/.541/.500 over the last three weekends.

But LSU too often hasn’t been able to string together hits and walks to produce big innings. It’s not built to run much or play small ball, meaning it needs its best hitters to get on base and drive the ball. That just hasn’t happened often enough.

LSU’s SEC opponents deserve some of the credit here. Arkansas has the best pitching staff in the nation and both Mississippi State and Florida have high-quality pitchers. But the same can be said for pretty much any team in the SEC. LSU will have to dig out of its funk while facing high-end pitching.

The Defense

Coming into the season, defense was a bit of a question mark for LSU. It was replacing its double-play combination and elite defenders at first base (Tre’ Morgan) and center field (Crews). But the Tigers have been solid defensively.

Braswell and freshman second baseman Steven Milam have formed a reliable double-play combination. Jones is not Morgan, but he is solid at first base and sophomore Paxton Kling is an elite defensive center fielder.

It’s college baseball, so there have been some costly errors committed by the Tigers. But their .975 fielding percentage is middle of the pack in the SEC and equal to last year’s mark.

The Schedule

This is an inexact science, but LSU for three weeks in a row has gotten the SEC Network’s top broadcast team of Tom Hart and Kyle Peterson for its series against Florida, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Some of that is to be expected for the reigning national champions, but it also speaks to the quality of the Tigers’ opponents.

Looking ahead, we’re at a point in the season where you can really evaluate the road to come and what a team has to do to get into the postseason or to host. LSU this weekend hosts No. 6 Vanderbilt with trips to No. 7 Tennessee and last-place Missouri to follow. It hosts Auburn and No. 3 Texas A&M before visiting No. 11 Alabama and then finishes the regular season at home against Mississippi.

The second half of its SEC slate is objectively easier than the first half. Its road trips are front-loaded, meaning it will spend three of the final four weeks at Alex Box Stadium, where it is 14-5 this season. But it’s also the SEC, so “easier” is very much relative.

To get into the NCAA Tournament field, SEC teams can target 14 conference wins. Teams have gotten in with less, but it’s a dicier proposition and typically requires at least one win in the SEC Tournament. That would mean going 12-9 the rest of the way, which should be entirely doable for a team of LSU’s talent. To host, LSU would likely need at least 16 SEC wins (or 15 and an SEC Tournament run). That would mean going 14-7 the rest of the way, which isn’t out of the question, but would also mean it probably can only lose one more series.

The Outlook

So, where does all of that leave the Tigers? LSU fans have the highest expectations of any in the country, and that’s especially true in a year when the Tigers were a preseason top-five team. Last year’s national championship is not going to ease the angst of a challenging spring in Baton Rouge.

The good news is that everything is still in front of LSU. Clemson last year went 2-7 to open ACC play. Those Tigers then got red hot, won the ACC Tournament and earned the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Closer to home, that 2021 LSU team that started SEC play 1-8 went on to play in super regionals.

Expecting LSU to play like 2023 Clemson down the stretch is unfair. But it is a reminder that teams are allowed to get better over the course of a baseball season and that there’s still plenty of time left to turn things around.

“We’re not where we want to be, but I believe everything is still in front of our team,” Johnson said. “We just have to keep improving as the year goes along. If we do that, we’ll put ourselves in a position to do what we want to do.

“I look at it this way, we’re getting everyone’s best shot because of what we did last year. The focus has to be there, the intent has to be there and the play has to be there. We haven’t quite been there from a play standpoint.”

For that to happen in Baton Rouge, the Tigers will need their veterans to step up. This week has been a gut check, but if they can respond, their slow start will be forgotten by June.

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