PodKATT of And The Valley Shook, SB Nation's outstanding LSU Tigers blog, asked me to do a Q&A about the big baseball game tonight at Cliff Hagan Stadium between the #1 ranked LSU Tigers and #2 Kentucky Wildcats. I happily agreed.
First of all, a caveat -- I'm a lousy baseball fan. I'm covering the Bat Cats because they more than deserve it, and there is nobody else around to do it. I'm a college basketball and football guy, and about those two subjects I'll stand toe to toe with anyone. Baseball is something I am still trying to remember from my youth, so please bear with me.
Related: My answers to ATVS' questions
Kentucky is facing the "old money" from the SEC tonight. LSU has been a great baseball program for a long time, and the Wildcats are very much crashing the party this year, just as they did in 2006 and 2008. But Kentucky has proven themselves worthy so far, and this is just another big test to find out how good the Wildcats really are this year. The remaining skepticism is mostly due to a really soft early-season schedule, but Kentucky's recent victory at Arkansas sobered up most of the remaining doubters.
Okay, here we go:
ASOB: How surprised are LSU baseball fans to find the Wildcats atop the SEC at this point in the season?
ATVS: Very surprised, along with the rest of the college baseball world. When UK was streaking through the non-conference slate, most regarded it with a "well, isn't that nice" attitude, as UK's schedule was certainly lacking in strength. But then conference play came around and the 2 time defending national champions get swept and suddenly everyone takes note. To think that Kentucky, faced with a division that sent 3 teams to Omaha last year, even had a chance to compete in division, let alone lead the entire SEC, is something no one could have predicted this year.
ASOB: LSU hit several unexpected road bumps early in this season, dropping two games to Appalachian St. and dropped a series 2-1 at Auburn, but has now reeled off 7 in a row and 14 of their last 15. What one thing has been most important in the Tigers getting back on track?
ATVS: The Appy St series loss is starting to look more and more like the Mountaineers caught LSU sleepwalking through as supposedly easy OOC weekend, and the fact that Appy still looks like a postseason team certainly eases the blow. But at that point and through the Auburn series loss, LSU had a few questions still lingering from the previous season, namely that they were still looking for a successful identity on offense and were facing issues with a bullpen that had not matured to the level that was needed for conference play. More than anything, the improvement of the relief pitching, to complement the stellar starting pitching, is allowing LSU to work around the issues it still has from time to time with it's offense. LSU is now 9-3 in one run games, a change from last season where LSU won barley 50% of those games, largely thanks to the relief pitching keeping LSU in games and not giving up the daggers that haunted us so much last year in conference play.
ASOB: Tiger pitching seems to have really rounded into form lately, leading the league in strikeouts and second to Arkansas in ERA, but 13-22 Lamar managed 8 hits and scored more runs than any team since your 8-7 victory over Florida six games prior. Is that a concern considering that the Wildcats are the best hitting team in the SEC?
ATVS: Not really. Lamar, and many of our midweek games, have become glorified bullpen sessions for Coach Mainieri to use a bunch of not-ready-for-primetime arms that need to see live pitching. LSU went through 8 pitchers last night, none going more than 2 innings. No one had a particularly bad outing, Mainieri just had a really quick hook on everyone. I am worried that we don't seem to have a solid 4th starter yet, but that's more of a problem for post-season play, and there is still more than a month left to work on that.
Facing Kentucky's formidable offense is my main concern of the weekend, but seeing as we've already gone 5-1 against the other best bats in the league in UF and ARK, I think LSU will be up to the challenge. The starters have a combined 36/168 walk to strikeout ratio, which is amazing at this point in the season, and the Tigers are fielding at an SEC leading .979. LSU wont be able to hang in a shootout, but good pitching, strong defense, and some fireworks from Raph Rhymes, the nations leading hitter, should be enough to give LSU the edge.
ASOB: How important is this series to LSU, from an overall season perspective?
ATVS: Much like basketball, the effect of a 1 v 2 regular season matchup in college baseball is lessened somewhat by the post season. At the end of the weekend, both of these teams will likely still be leading their divisions no matter what the outcome, and even a sweep might not knock Kentucky from Top 8 National Seed contention. LSU has the most to gain, with a series win most certainly locking up home field for the playoffs, but they wont be docked hard for losing to the #1 team on the road.
And then there is the notion of Pride. A belief that this upstart Kentucky, long an SEC doormat, should not be able to hang with a blue blood like LSU, who practically reinvented the sport in the conference and sparked the arms race that led to the SEC's dominance in the sport. The LSU of old would've had no fear on the road in Lexington and after a pair of down years that included missing the postseason entirely, fans are looking for the program to regain some of that "swagger" we're used to seeing.
ASOB: Predict the series outcome, and why.
ATVS: LSU in 2 of 3. Kentucky's offense is simply too good to be beaten all weekend. One game they'll catch a starter having a not so good night and light him up early and LSU won't be able to make up the difference. I see the LSU wins as close, though, with UK's bullpen keeping the games tight until the end.
Thanks to PodKATT and ATVS for doing this with us, and may the best team win this weekend.