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March 18, 2013

Tigers do just enough to win road series

Among the seven teams who won opening Southeastern Conference baseball series, LSU had the most impressive victory.

The Tigers went to Starkville and captured two of three games from Mississippi State, which entered the weekend as a top-ten team. LSU won close contests Friday and Saturday before losing handily in the series finale Sunday.

Four other SEC teams won road series - Vanderbilt at Auburn, South Carolina at Missouri, Kentucky at Florida and Ole Miss at Arkansas. The only team in this group to knock off a ranked opponent was Ole Miss. However, Arkansas was not as highly rated as Mississippi State.

The Tigers continued their success at Dudy Noble Field as they have won five straight series there. Coach Paul Mainieri has not lost a regular-season series - home or away - against the Bulldogs in his seven years as LSU coach.

It was not a dominant weekend for the Tigers. LSU's two victories were primarily the responsibility of two players - Mason Katz and Ryan Eades. Katz hit two home runs, including the game-winner, in the Tigers' 6-4, ten-inning victory Friday.

Then, Eades limited Mississippi State to one run and six hits in seven innings in the series-clinching victory Saturday. LSU had just a 3-1 lead after seven innings and didn't break the game open until Alex Bregman hit a three-run homer in the ninth.

The offense was spotty. Of the seven players who started all three games, only Bregman and Christian Ibarra had a hit in each one. Bregman had four hits, two coming in the ninth inning. He drove in just three runs - all coming on the homer.

Ibarra also had four hits, but drove in just one run. Twice, he failed to deliver a hit with runners in scoring position in the Tigers' 10-2 defeat Sunday. Katz, who had a pitch thrown behind his head in his first at-bat Sunday, had three hits - all home runs.

Raph Rhymes had three hits, but no runs batted in. Mark Laird was just 1-for-11 and struck out once in each game. Ty Ross' hitting problems continued as he was 2-for-9. At least JaCoby Jones showed some life with two-hit games Saturday and Sunday.

Mainieri continued rotating one outfield position and the designated hitter spot. He used four players to fill those two places in the lineup at Mississippi State - Chris Sciambra, Chris Chinea, Andrew Stevenson and Tyler Moore. Those four players combined for just three hits - two by Sciambra on Sunday.

Eades was the only pitcher to deliver a quality start - allowing three runs or less in six or more innings. Aaron Nola yielded four runs and nine hits before being relieved in the sixth inning Friday. Cody Glenn was roughed up for six runs before being lifted in the fourth inning Sunday.

The earned run average for the three starters was 6.19 - a figure which will not be good enough to win series over the course of the ten-week SEC schedule. The bullpen was solid in the first two games, but there was a continuing problem.

In those two games, the relievers allowed just two runs in 6.1 innings. Chris Cotton allowed a meaningless two-run homer in the ninth inning of LSU's 7-3 victory Saturday. Mainieri used just three relievers in those games - Cotton and Joey Bourgeois twice and Brent Bonvillain once.

When the Tigers needed good middle relief to keep them in the game Sunday, it was not there. Nate Fury gave up a two-run single to give the Bulldogs a 6-0 lead. Nick Rumbelow allowed a run, while Will LaMarche was tagged for three runs. LaMarche retired just one of five batters.

The bullpen's ERA for the series was 5.40. Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn must find additional bullpen help for Bonvillain, Bourgeois and Cotton. Outside of that trio, Russell Reynolds was the most effective reliever with one scoreless inning Sunday.

Still, one cannot be upset with a SEC series victory, especially on the road. Only Vanderbilt and Texas A&M registered sweeps. Auburn, which lost at home to the Commodores, will be at The Box this weekend. The Aggies, who took three from Georgia, will be tested in a series at Ole Miss.

LSU has won 18 of its first 20 games - its best start in 16 years. The 1997 team had a 19-1 record after 20 games. The Tigers have one non-conference game this week as Northwestern State visits The Box on Wednesday night.


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