Off The Bat: LSU Bounces Back. Oklahoma State Stays Hot
Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.
LSU Bounces Back For Key Road Series Win
Louisiana State came into the weekend at Mississippi State scuffling. The Tigers had lost three straight games and had been shutout twice in that stretch, including a 2-0 loss at Alex Box Stadium against McNeese State. To make matters worse, the Tigers were on the road at Mississippi State, which had lost just three times all season.
The Bulldogs on Thursday night won the series opener, 6-5, with their powerful offense looking unquestionably like one of the nation’s best. But the Tigers bounced back with a 10-5 victory Friday, becoming the first team to really get to freshman righthander JT Ginn, a Preseason All-American and unsigned first-rounder. They closed out the series on Saturday with an emphatic 11-2 victory that they were in control of from start to finish.
With the SEC West Division this season shaping up as a cage match, it was a crucial series victory for No. 15 LSU (19-8, 6-3 SEC) as it reached the midpoint of the regular season.
“To come here and win a series, I don’t know of any team that needed it more than us,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s been kind of a strange first half of the season for the Tigers. Now we finished on a high note this weekend.”
LSU was ranked No. 2 in the Preseason Top 25, but it hadn’t hit its stride until this weekend. The Tigers’ preseason hype had a lot to do with its returning players such as righthander Zack Hess and outfielders Daniel Cabrera, Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson, all of whom last summer played for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, yes, but it also was about its top-ranked recruiting class. With several new players taking on key roles, some growing pains were to be expected. Those came in the form of a sweep at Texas in the third weekend of the season and last week’s four-game skid.
But LSU has so much talent on its roster its also been sure to find its stride eventually. It seemed to do just that Friday and Saturday, putting together complete games against a team that had rolled through the first six weeks of the season.
Righthander Eric Walker, who threw seven scoreless innings Saturday in his best start of the season, said this weekend everything finally clicked for the Tigers.
“At the beginning of the season, we couldn’t pitch to save our lives,” the redshirt sophomore said. “We would win games by scoring eight or 10 runs and it was like, ‘This is going to be good but going into SEC we need to pitch.’ And then we started pitching a little bit and our hitters started scuffling, we’d lose 2-0 or 3-0.
“I think it’s just a matter of putting it all together. That’s what great teams do. Credit the hitters, credit the pitchers, it was a whole team this weekend.”
LSU’s offense broke out Friday and Saturday. After scoring 13 runs in five games over the last week, the Tigers scored a total of 21 in the final two games against the Bulldogs. Duplantis on Friday became the sixth player in LSU history to reach 300 career hits and on Saturday homered twice to finish the weekend 7-for-12.
Duplantis hit a total of six home runs in his first three seasons at LSU, but his newfound power has this season made him the Tigers’ leading home run hitter. And with Cabrera now dealing with a right wrist injury that kept him out of the lineup Saturday, the Tigers may need Duplantis’ power more than ever.
Walker’s excellent start was a part of an impressive weekend for the pitching staff. He missed last season while he recovered from Tommy John surgery and hadn’t had his best stuff early this season. But his velocity bounced back Saturday, and he kept the Bulldogs off balance with his upper-80s fastball and offspeed pitches.
Walker said it was the first time this season that he felt like he had his true stuff, and Mainieri said it was a performance reminiscent of two years ago, when Walker threw a four-hit shutout at Arkansas to clinch a series win. Walker was a Freshman All-American that year and getting him back to that level would be a big boost for LSU.
Walker (2-1, 4.60) wasn’t the only Tiger to shine on the mound this weekend. Relievers Devin Fontenot, Todd Peterson and Trent Vietmeier combined to hold Mississippi State to three runs in 9.2 innings, highlighted by Vietmeier’s 3.2 scoreless innings Thursday night. Freshman Cole Henry outdueled Ginn on Friday.
Mississippi State (24-5, 5-4 SEC) entered the weekend ranked fourth in the nation in scoring, averaging 9.4 runs per game. The Bulldogs were held to 13 runs on the weekend.
“This could be the strongest Mississippi State team that I’ve coached against and I’ve been here 10 years,” Mainieri said. “They’ve got veterans at almost every position and very physical guys. Their hitting stats are not inflated. They’re legitimate. For us to pitch the way we did against them this weekend I think is a total credit to our kids and our pitching coach Alan Dunn and not so much a knock on them.”
But Mississippi State was unable to break its hex against LSU. The Tigers have won 12 of their last 14 games against the Bulldogs and haven’t lost a series in Starkville since 2003. Even Mississippi State’s new Dudy Noble Field was unable to reverse the voodoo.
LSU has been tested early and often this season, especially in SEC play. It opened its conference slate against Kentucky and Preseason All-American lefthander Zack Thompson before hitting the road for tough series against Georgia and Mississippi State. Those tests will continue next weekend when No. 12 Texas A&M visits Baton Rouge.
But now, having won a road series for the first time since 2017, LSU can go home with some momentum.
“Our kids have competed really hard and I’m proud of them,” Mainieri said. “If you’d have told me after the first three weekends, we’d be 6-3, I’d have taken that in a heartbeat. I think it gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”
Oklahoma State Finishes Impressive Week With Wild Win
Oklahoma State put together an impressive 3-1 week, beating archrival Oklahoma on Tuesday at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium and then going on the road to win a series at Texas Christian. Those results lifted the Cowboys (18-8, 5-1 Big 12) into an early first-place tie in the Big 12 Conference and into the Top 25 for the first time this season at No. 23.
But it was more of a cardiac week than a walk in the park. In all three of its wins, Oklahoma State scored in its final at-bat to win the game. On Tuesday, it walked off with a 6-5 victory against Oklahoma on a pinch-hit single from Max Hewitt. On Saturday, Colin Simpson and Alex Garcia hit solo home runs in the ninth inning to turn a one-run deficit into a 7-6 victory. And on Sunday, Carson McCusker delivered a two-run single in the ninth inning to break a tie and send Oklahoma State to a 9-8, series-clinching victory.
“They were four tough games and our kids did a good job,” coach Josh Holliday said. “They probably just competed the best they had competed all year across the board. A lot of good team moments.”
Oklahoma State stared the season 6-4, including a series loss against Iowa at the start of March. Since then, however, the Cowboys are 12-4 and have shown impressive resilience. They are 5-0 in one-run games in that stretch, a testament to their ability to grind out wins.
Oklahoma State didn’t have its best week on the mound, but its pitching staff has again been a team strength this season. It helps that the Cowboys have righthander Jensen Elliott back at full strength after the 2016 Freshman All-American was limited to 32.2 innings over the last two years due to Tommy John surgery. Elliott is 3-1, 3.44 with 25 strikeouts and 16 walks in 36.2 innings.
Holliday said he believes Elliott is going to reach another gear soon.
“I think he’s still getting touch and feel for the ball dialed in,” Holliday said. “He takes the ball on Fridays with the intention of winning. We missed that kid and we’re glad to have him back.”
In the bullpen, closer Ben Leeper (3-0, 0.57) has been critical and was again this weekend, winning Saturday’s game and saving Sunday’s. He finally surrendered a run Sunday for the first time in 14 appearances this season.
Between Elliott and Leeper, Oklahoma State has a deep, talented staff. The Cowboys have a 3.78 team ERA and showed off their depth this weekend, as they used 10 pitchers in the series. They needed it against a strong, disciplined lineup in Fort Worth.
“We gutted it out on the mound,” Holliday said. “There was not one single inning across the three games that was easy. You have to earn the outs against them. The kids competed well on the mound all week.”
Oklahoma State also has plenty of options offensively. McCusker is the team’s leading hitter at .344/.434/.615 with 11 doubles and three home runs and his development has been a big boost. McCusker is listed at 6-foot-8, 221 pounds, which is on the high end for a hitter, but he has improved the consistency of his swing, something bigger hitters often struggle with.
“The key is he’s got a good swing for a huge guy,” Holliday said. “He registers good, hard contact and the power in there on the right pitch. He’s an awesome kid. He likes the challenge of the game.”
Whlie McCusker, Andrew Navigato (.302/.393/.594, 7 HR) and freshman Hueston Morrill (.301/.370/.398, 9 2B) are off to fast starts at the plate, Simpson (.237/.363/.361, 3 HR) has struggled out of the gate. But if the all-Big 12 catcher can get on track, the lineup has the potential to do damage in the second half of the season.
Oklahoma State is on top of the conference now, but staying there won’t be easy. The Big 12 is highly competitive again this season with No. 8 Texas (20-11) and No. 11 Texas Tech (18-6) leading the way. Oklahoma (22-7) and TCU (17-8) both fell out of the Top 25 this week after series losses, but figure to factor into the race. And Baylor (20-7) and West Virginia (16-11) have regional-caliber teams.
Holiday isn’t about to get caught looking ahead as the calendar flips to April. He’s focused on helping the Cowboys get better day by day, so they can withstand the rigors of the Big 12 schedule, which this week brings West Virginia to Stillwater.
“We have to keep focusing on getting better,” he said. “Each week is a new challenge. You don’t start looking toward the end, you just keep moving the needle each day together.”
2021 Big 12 Baseball Stock Watch
After yet another thrilling finish in the Big 12 last season, we take stock of where things stand in the conference in the aftermath of the 2021 season.
Eight For Omaha
Arizona State, Georgia, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt
One change to the field this week as Arizona State enters and Florida State leaves. I (stubbornly) continue to believe in the Seminoles’ potential, but they’ve obviously got some real work to do to reach it. Add them to the likes of Florida and Louisiana State who are probably going to get hot in the second half and enter June with some real momentum. But, until that happens, we’ll leave them aside. The Sun Devils have plenty of momentum right now. Their offense is averaging 9.96 runs per game, and they’re fielding .974 as a team. Righthander Alec Marsh (7-0, 0.94) has been dominant on Friday nights, and they have some premium arms coming out of the bullpen. I’m still very interested in seeing how Arizona State fares against a high-end pitching staff—we’ll wait for Oregon State’s visit to Phoenix in two weeks for that—but I think it has what it takes to match up well with most teams it would face in a super regional.
Five players or programs who put together big weekends.
Brigham Young: The Cougars this weekend swept Saint Mary’s, the preseason West Coast Conference favorite, to improve to 21-5, 7-2. The sweep extended their winning streak to eight games, tied for the third-longest in the country. BYU made the NCAA Tournament in 2017 before taking a step back last year and finishing 22-28, but led by senior outfielder Brock Hale, who went 8-for-16 with a double and four home runs this weekend, it looks like a serious contender in the WCC again this spring.
Tristin English, 1B/RHP, Georgia Tech: English did a little bit of everything for Georgia Tech in a series win against Notre Dame. The redshirt junior went 7-for-12 with two home runs, seven runs and five RBIs at the plate and earned the victory in Sunday’s series-clinching, 8-7 win with two innings on the mound. English this season is hitting .282/.388/.553 with six home runs and is 2-0, 4.38 with three saves in eight appearances on the mound.
Matt Lloyd, 1B, Indiana: After getting shutout Friday at Maryland, Indiana broke out its big bats the next two days to win the series. The Hoosiers scored 39 over the last two days, and Lloyd was at the heart of it, hitting two home runs in both games. In the two wins, he went 6-for-9 with two doubles, four home runs, seven runs and 10 RBIs. The senior is hitting .316/.403/.653 with nine homers this season.
Noah Song, RHP, Navy: Song on Saturday became Navy’s all-time strikeout leader, as he whiffed 12 batters in a 10-1 victory against Lafayette. His career total now stands at 357, surpassing Chuck Davis, who struck out 347 batters from 1959-1961. Song (5-0, 1.54) is also the nation’s leader in strikeouts this season with 90 in 46.2 innings.
Zack Thompson, LHP, Kentucky: Thompson, a potential first-round pick, turned in the best pitching performance of the weekend. He on Friday threw a two-hitter against No. 6 Georgia to lead Kentucky to a 5-0 victory. Neither of Georgia’s hits left the infield, and Thompson struck out 13 batters and walked four. He improved to 2-0, 2.06 with 68 strikeouts and 14 walks in 43.2 innings.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(1) UCLA at (2) Stanford: For the first time since 2016 and the 13th time in the 38-year history of Baseball America’s rankings, No. 1 will take on No. 2 during the regular season. This promises to be an outstanding series that will have a massive impact on the Pac-12 Conference standings. UCLA (20-5, 7-2 Pac-12) has already won a series against Oregon State, one of the primary contenders for the title. Stanford (18-3, 6-0 Pac-12) has swept through Washington State and Utah in conference play but will now get a much tougher challenge. The teams are similarly constructed, with strong pitching staffs that emphasize strike-throwing, strong, physical lineups and steady defenses.
(3) Vanderbilt at (6) Georgia: The top two teams in the SEC East are set to square off in what should be a fascinating series. Vanderbilt (22-6, 6-3 SEC) has one of the best offenses in the nation and is averaging 8.5 runs per game. Georgia (23-5, 7-2 SEC) stands out for its work on the mound and has a 2.85 team ERA. The Bulldogs are 15-2 at Foley Field and will be hoping to make that home-field advantage count this weekend.
(16) Louisville at (21) Clemson: The first four weeks of ACC play have revealed just how much parity there is in the conference this year, as eight of the 14 teams are within two games of .500 in conference play. But Louisville (22-6, 9-3 ACC) and Clemson (22-6, 9-3 ACC) are two of the teams that have elevated themselves. Both have a tough home series loss already, which leaves them a game behind North Carolina State in the Atlantic Division, making this series even more important as they jockey for position in the standings.
Two weekend series to watch
Minnesota at Michigan: The two preseason favorites in the Big Ten square off this weekend in Ann Arbor. Minnesota (10-14, 5-1 Big 10) struggled out of the gate against a brutal non-conference schedule, but last year’s champion has picked right up where it left off last season against Big Ten competition and has series wins against Penn State and Nebraska. Michigan (19-7, 2-0 Big 10) had an easier non-conference slate, but also struggled on the road against premium competition. It’s coming off an abbreviated sweep of rival Michigan State and is looking for a marquee series win.
Grand Canyon at New Mexico State: The top two teams in last year’s Western Athletic Conference standings are expected to again vie for the championship. Grand Canyon (15-12, 4-2 WAC) stumbled briefly, losing a home series to Division I newcomer California Baptist, two weeks ago, but has since won four straight games. New Mexico State (20-7, 4-2 WAC) has a potent offense and enjoys a strong home-field advantage at Askew Field, where it is 17-3
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(6) Georgia at (21) Clemson, Tuesday, 6 p.m. ET: Georgia is into the meat of its midweek schedule, where it faces Georgia Tech and Clemson a combined five times over a month. This trip to Clemson starts a big week for Georgia, which hosts Vanderbilt on the weekend. The Tigers have a big week of their own with No. 16 Louisville coming to town on the weekend. Clemson is hot, having won four straight and eight of its last nine games since slipping up against Notre Dame.