HOOVER, Ala.—On back-to-back nights at the Southeastern Conference tournament, No. 7 Louisiana State has faced pitchers who will be first-round picks next month. And on back-to-back nights, the Tigers have risen to the occasion and found a way to win games started by two of the best pitchers in the country.
Wednesday night, it was Florida lefthander A.J. Puk, who will likely be the first college pitcher drafted June 9. Puk was sensational, but LSU eventually got to him in the eighth inning for two runs and went on to win the game, 5-3, in 14 innings.
The reward for that victory was the opportunity to face No. 2 Mississippi State and righthander Dakota Hudson, who this week was named first-team all-SEC. The Tigers knocked him out after five innings with a relentless approach, scoring four runs (two earned) on nine hits—all singles.
LSU went on to defeat Mississippi State, 6-2, to advance to the semifinals on Saturday. Mississippi State will face No. 4 Florida in an elimination game Friday, with the winner getting another shot at the Tigers.
“We had 12 hits today and faced one of the best pitchers in the league,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “It was just a solid game all-around, maybe one of the better games we’ve played all year.”
While the Tigers’ performance Thursday was particularly good, they have made a habit this season of beating elite pitchers. They lead the SEC in hitting in conference play, and have beaten the likes of Hudson (twice), Vanderbilt righthanders Jordan Sheffield and Kyle Wright and Missouri righthander Tanner Houck, among others.
After replacing eight starters from last year’s College World Series team, including second overall pick Alex Bregman, it took LSU’s young hitters some time to get to this point. They struggled at times early in the season, and scored 15 runs in their first six SEC games—a stretch in which LSU went 2-4.
But, eventually, it clicked for the Tigers.
“It took us the first three, four, five weekends of the season to get things going and to build confidence with these guys and to be comfortable in the box against 90-94 with secondary stuff,” hitting coach Andy Cannizaro said. “The more we saw, the better we continued to get.”
As the Tigers have navigated their way through the gauntlet of top pitchers, Cannizaro has made sure they know just how good their opponents are and where they are likely to fall in the draft. He wants them to understand Puk could go first overall in two weeks and that Hudson could quickly follow him off the board. He wants them to understand just what they’re facing on any given night.
“I give them that information, not so they back down,” Cannizaro said, “but so they understand the challenge ahead and they get after it and they get themselves in the box ready to hit, ready to do damage and don’t back down at all.”
On Thursday, the challenge was facing Hudson, who ran his fastball up to 96 mph and mixed in his sharp low-90s cutter. But after getting beat by LSU during the regular season, the righthander had a slightly different approach Thursday. He relied on his cutter less, and threw his breaking ball more often.
Hudson dominated the first two innings, striking out three and allowing only an infield hit. But LSU adjusted to his new approach and pushed across the first run of the game in the third inning with three straight singles.
Outfielder Antoine Duplantis struck out in his first plate appearance against Hudson, but singled each of his next two and finished the night 3-for-5 with an RBI.
“The first time through the lineup, we struggled a little bit,” Duplantis said. “But everybody’s making adjustments as the game went on. Just figuring the game out and seeing what he’s trying to do to you.”
Part of LSU’s process of making in-game adjustments are the between-innings huddles Cannizaro holds with the hitters. Once or twice a game, he will gather them outside the dugout and pass on whatever insights he has picked up about how they are being pitched and how to attack the opposing pitcher.
But, ultimately, it falls on the players to apply that in-game information from Cannizaro and the pregame scouting report he and volunteer assistant coach Nolan Cain prepare. The Tigers have done a good job of that, starting with Duplantis, a freshman, who leads the team in hitting at .336/.415/.433. Six other regulars in the lineup are hitting at least .300.
With its lineup firing on all cylinders, LSU is ready to take on whatever pitcher its opponents throw at them.
“The more we’re able to face these guys and have success, this is just such a confident group right now,” Cannizaro said. “Our guys have really bought into it, and they’ve done an incredible job in executing our game plans and how we’re going to attack and how we’re going to beat these guys.
“I’m so proud of these kids because they get in the box every single week. They don’t back down from anybody, they get after it and we’ve had a lot of success.”