The Aggie Baseball squad comes into this weekend's series at home against the LSU Tigers having won 5 of their last 6 games and seem to have played their way back into postseason consideration. LSU, meanwhile, sports a Top 5 or Top 10 national ranking - depending on where you look - and are likely going to be hosting a regional come tournament time.
We wanted to get some inside scoop on what to expect coming into this big series, so we swapped a series of questions with PodKatt over at LSU's SB Nation site, And The Valley Shook. You can find my answers to their questions over on ATVS here, and my full preview of the series will be coming this afternoon. In the meantime, to the questions! Note that any bold you see in the ATVS responses, I've added for emphasis.
Good Bull Hunting: Can you leave Aaron Nola in Baton Rouge? Seriously, how good is this guy? And what does it take for a team to manage to have any degree of success against him?
And the Valley Shook: We learned last weekend that Aaron Nola is indeed human. He gave up 5 earned runs on 8 hits with 4 BB and 4 K over 5.2 IP in last friday's start against Tennessee, tying the worst start of his career. Somehow, even with that performance, LSU was able to slug out a victory. But the fact remains that Nola is still on track statistically to be the best pitcher LSU has had in 40 years. His BB/K ratio is still an insane 19/95 and some games it feels like he never walks anybody. Nola takes command very early in an outing and is able to maintain right until he's pulled in about the 7th or 8th. If you want to beat Nola, you need to swing extremely aggressively at the plate, play mistake free, and hope for the best. There's no sense in trying to be patient at the plate, because he just doesn't walk anybody.
GBH: Outside of Nola, what is the general consensus about the rest of your pitching staff? It seems unusual for a team like LSU to go with TBA starters in 2 consecutive weeks, but I take it your staff as a whole has been trusted enough to go out and get wins regardless of whether a starter has problems. Is that an accurate assumption?
ATVS: Saturday starter Jared Poche any other year would be a really great starting LSU pitcher, maybe even a staff ace, but he kinda gets lost in the shadows of Nola. And that's a shame, because aside from closer Joe Broussard, he's easily the steadiest hand on the rest of the staff. The continuing use of a TBA listing for Sunday (to the point where we at ATVS affectionately refer to it as mythical LSU pitcher "Taco Bell Anderson") is partially due to some bad luck on the injury front (Kyle Bouman had it, then he stepped on a ball in practice and twisted his ankle, Alden Cartwright might have had it until he pulled something in his shoulder against Vandy) and partially due to no one really stepping up and taking the job.
Luckily, Coach Paul Mainieri has been using the bullpen so efficiently that there's not a lot of worry if things go south quickly, but Sundays still count for 4 of LSU's 11 losses and the tie. Still, it's not like these are a bunch of scrubs being put in. LSU's staff ERA is still in the top 20 of D1 and everyone of them is capable of a dominate outing. Cartwright will probably be the Sunday starter this week, as long as he hasn't had to be used in relief earlier.
GBH: I was a little surprised to see that LSU's leading home run hitter has the same number of HRs on the season (4) as A&M's leader in that category. Y'all also only have 2 regular starters hitting for an average over .300; what's happened with the Tigers at the plate this season?
ATVS: The Tigers are still recovering from a truly epic team-wide slump that hit just after SEC play started. And I mean epic. Alex Bregman, last year's national freshman of the year, had a streak where he went 1 for 44 at the plate and his struggles affected the whole team. Things are much better now, but this is by no means a power hitting team, even by today's dead bat standards.
Despite his claims to the contrary at the beginning of the season, I think Mainieri is trying to turn LSU into a club into a team that can win with small ball, or at least win in Omaha. That 0-2 performance last year really left some scars and I think that CPM has been quietly trying to retool the offense while still trying to win the SEC. Last weekend, LSU twice tied the school record for sac bunts in a game and that style of play has become more obvious as the season has gone on. That's not to say LSU won't swing for the fences from time to time, as Sean McMullen and Conner Hale will certainly do this weekend, but don't be surprised when you see a 1st or 2nd inning sac bunt, because it's going to happen.
GBH: It seems that the Tigers are probably still in good shape for a regional host spot, but how does that stack up to your expectations coming into 2014? Are you happy with how things have played out? And how confident do you feel about this LSU team's ability to make a run in the postseason?
ATVS: With the epic losses on offense of Raph Rymes and Mason Katz from last season, plus a few key players from the bullpen like Chris Cotton, things were expected to take a bit of a downturn this year, but at LSU, that still means you expect to be hosting at least a regional round of the post season and make it to Omaha. I find the kind of predictions you see from national outlets to be wildly inaccurate over the years, but as of now LSU seems to be a consensus regional host, with a national seed not out of reach if the Tigers perform well down the stretch. Aside from the slump in the early SEC play (which cost us a road series at Vandy, a sweep at UF, and an embarrassing midweek loss to Tulane in the 1 sport where that rivalry still truly matters) LSU has been it's usual winning self and even though there are some complaints from the fans about the strategy at the plate, the complaints don't seem as loud when we win.
Predicting the post season is so difficult, especially with the specter of a potential Super Regional at nearby UL-L haunting my nightmares, but I think that if LSU can make it to Omaha, this offense has been reshaped to perform very well there. The problem will be with getting there.
GBH: Give us 3 names that A&M fans should be worried about this weekend.
ATVS: FR OF Jake Fraley has made his way into the lineup the last few weeks and is really knocking the cover off the ball lately. 2B Connor Hale would probably be the 2-time SEC player of the week if Tennessee didn't throw so many lefties, his apparent kryptonite. OF Mark Laird is Mr. Clutch, twice giving LSU walk-off series wins last month. And a bonus name from the bullpen, I think Zac Person is ready for a truly breakout weekend
GBH: How do you see the series playing out?
ATVS: Nola takes Friday, I'll never not say that this year. Sunday could be anything depending on who starts and how it goes, and I'm usually thinking loss on that day, along with the difficulty of sweeping on the road. So the series comes down to Saturday, and really, down to LSU's offense. Poche' pitches well enough for win, if the bats can back him up. With the warming good weather this weekend, and things seemingly starting to click for the offense, I think LSU can eek out the Saturday win and take the series. But it probably takes too much out of the bullpen for a sweep to happen
**SUPER IMPORTANT BONUS QUESTION** GBH: What is your general opinion on corndogs?
ATVS: Who doesn't love corn dogs? Look, I get it. I've been hearing HURRHURR CORNDOGS jokes ever since Auburn stole the joke about Iowa from Nebraska fans in the early 90's (look it up). But why waste food on a bad joke? I mean really, who doesn't love corn dogs?