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LSU Baseball

Veterans need to come alive as SEC schedule gets closer

March 12, 2019

It was written here before the start of the 2019 baseball season that having five key components returning did not automatically mean success.

Pitcher Zack Hess and outfielders Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson bypassed pro baseball to come back for another year with the Tigers. Pitcher Eric Walker was back after missing 2018 due to Tommy John surgery. Shortstop Josh Smith was returning after having last season cut short by a back injury.

LSU started the 2019 season ranked No. 1 in two of the major baseball rankings, primarily due to the presence of these five players on the roster.

The Tigers are now on the fringe of the top ten after losing four times in their first 15 games. Playing power conference teams the past two weekends, LSU won only two of six games – getting swept at Texas and taking two of three games from California at The Box.

There are two games on the schedule, including Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern State at Brown-Stroud Field in Natchitoches (6 p.m. Central/ESPN+), before the Tigers open Southeastern Conference play at home against Kentucky this weekend.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri and his staff must find a way to get more consistent performances from the players – especially, the five aforementioned individuals.

Senior Chris Reid, who was cut from the team last fall, has been a pleasant surprise while taking over the starting third base job. Freshman Cade Beloso has hit a pair of late-inning game-winning home runs. Freshman Cole Henry has had his moments on the mound.

However, do not underestimate the importance of what the Tigers get from Hess, Duplantis, Watson, Walker and Smith. One simply needs to check out the numbers from these five players over the last two weekends.

Both Hess and Walker made a start in each series. Hess gave up six runs and 11 hits in 9.2 innings. Hess lost at Texas and had a no-decision against California. Walker allowed seven runs and nine hits in seven innings. He had two no-decisions. The Tigers split the four games started by Hess and Walker.

Smith, Watson and Duplantis batted a combined .250 (17-for-68) in the two series. Those three players struggled against the Bears. Smith was 3-for-11, while both Duplantis and Watson were 2-for-10. Throw in Daniel Cabrera’s 2-for-19 in these two series and one can see how LSU went 2-4.

Mainieri was quite blunt when addressing the production, or lack of production, from the top four batters in his lineup.

“For our team to be successful, the top four hitters in our lineup have to be productive in a big way,” Mainieri said. “They all have had their moments the last two weekends. But, we need them to put it all together at the same time for us to have a good team. When they struggle, we struggle.”

One would expect these four players to shake their recent batting woes. However, there cannot be as much confidence about the pitching staff.

Before looking at the starting rotation for the Kentucky series, let’s examine closer Todd Peterson’s outings against Texas and California. Peterson blew one game in each series. He allowed eight runs and nine hits while recording just five outs.

“Peterson’s last three outings have not been great,” said Mainieri, including a midweek appearance against Holy Cross. “The other day against California, his stuff was good. But, location was a problem. He was hanging curve balls and throwing fast balls down the middle. He is still our best option at closer.”

Mainieri is not sure of his rotation against the Wildcats other than the fact that Hess will start the Friday opener. Three pitchers are in the running for the other two starts – Henry, Walker and Landon Marceaux.

Walker has yet to throw five innings this season. Henry threw four scoreless innings Saturday against California, but he had to leave with back stiffness behind his throwing shoulder. Marceaux, who got knocked out in the second inning at Texas, will get another road start Tuesday against the Demons.

“Zack Hess was better against California, but he was not great,” Mainieri said. “Every inning is so long. He will be great when he goes seven innings and throws 80 pitches or so. Henry is feeling better. Commanding his curve ball is Landon’s biggest problem.”

Marceaux cannot go deep into the Northwestern State game and still be ready for a weekend start against Kentucky. In addition, Mainieri does not know if Henry will be healthy enough to start this weekend.

LSU has the appearance of anything but a national championship contender with the beginning of the SEC schedule in a few days. However, Mainieri has plenty of time to get things straightened out before the critical part of the season arrives in mid-April.

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