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March 28, 2014

Seeking hitting solutions

Over the last 24 innings, LSU's pitchers have allowed only five runs.

However, the Tigers have no victories to their credit in that span. LSU played a 13-inning, 2-2 tie with Georgia and dropped a 3-2, 11-inning decision to Tulane.

While the pitching has been outstanding, the Tigers' hitting has left much to be desired. In fact, LSU's production at the plate has been in the dumps for two weeks. In the past eight games, the Tigers have a .203 team batting average.

Only four players have had more than one multiple-hit game in this stretch - Sean McMullen (four), Christian Ibarra (two) Mark Laird (two) and Kade Scivicque (two). Thanks to its pitching, LSU has a 4-3-1 record in the eight games.

When the Tigers open a three-game series against Florida in Gainesville on Friday night, they are just one-half game behind Southeastern Conference tri-leaders Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. But, the hitting must pick up if LSU is going to contend for the league title.

"Our hitting is the question everybody wants answered," Mainieri said. "There are a lot of excuses, but nobody wants to hear excuses. We have to be more aggressive at the plate. We need to be better."

One person whose offensive performance needs to rise is Alex Bregman. A freshman All-American a year ago, Bregman has just four hits in his last 29 at-bats. In six SEC games, Bregman is 3-for-23 with one RBI. His batting average for the season has fallen to .330. Bregman has been placed off limits to the media.

"Alex Bregman is a part of this," Mainieri said. "He's our leader. He is going through the first slump of his career. It was my idea to not let him be available to the media. Alex feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"I was in several meetings with Alex (Wednesday) to get him the right mental approach. More has been asked of Alex as a freshman and early as a sophomore than anyone. He is just 19 years old. His focus needs to be on just playing games. Let him enjoy just playing baseball."

McMullen, who did go 0-for-5 and hit into two double plays against Tulane, has been the best hitter in the past two weeks. He is batting .303 with 10 hits in 33 at-bats. The only other regular batting over .250 in these eight games is Scivicque at .276 (8-for-29).

"No one is pressing," McMullen said. "Every team goes through ups and downs in the season. We have a lot of first-year guys in the lineup. We have to try to hit hard ground balls. All it takes is for three people in the lineup to be hot one weekend."

Mainieri has been analyzing the team's offensive woes. He repeated that roster limits and the change in the bats have affected hitting in college baseball.

"I take a lot of the blame for where we are offensively," Mainieri said. "The bats of changed and there are roster limits. We are only going to have 13 or 14 position players. You can't have one-dimensional players.

"Say you sign a one-dimensional first baseman who crushed 84 mile-per-hour high school pitching. He gets here and can't hit 94 mile-per-hour pitching in the SEC. That's a wasted scholarship. That's why I want speedy guys who can hit singles and doubles."

Maineiri was definitely affected by what happened in the Tigers' appearance in Omaha last June. He watched his team hit numerous deep fly balls which end in long outs. He also observed Pac-12 teams from Arizona and UCLA play small ball and win national titles the past two years.

About three weeks ago, Mainieri began to utilize that style of offense. He believes such an approach is not best for his teams.

"The best teams in the country are not knocking the cover off the ball," Mainieri said. "Teams are scoring with walks, bunts and steals. That's not the style I like to play. I've struggled with how much small ball we need to play.

"I have been giving more take signs trying to get walks. But, that takes the aggressiveness out of the hitters. So, I'm going back to my style of play. We're just going to let the kids go up there and rip. Be aggressive. It may not work. We may crush balls to the warning track like we did at Omaha last year."

The players seem to be ready to go back to this mindset at the plate.

"Coach wants us to be more aggressive," Laird said. "We have been taking a lot of fast balls down the middle of the plate. We need to see the ball in the zone and hit it. We have been hitting well in some games. In the last game, we hit some hard balls at guys. That's bad luck."

All baseball players know that slumps are part of the game. That factor is what makes hitting a baseball so challenging.

"We are not going to stress," Scivicque said. "I know this team's ability, what it can do. We are 20-5. We know how to win. It's just the game of baseball. You try to swing and hit the ball hard. Sometimes you catch a break. Just take it one at-bat at a time."

Mainieri has needed to be part-psychologist with his hitters the past few days.

"There are going to be moments of failure," Mainieri said. "It may be losses for the team or making outs or making errors, How can you live with yourself when you fail? Our attitude is that we are going to be aggressive. You can live with yourself when you are aggressive."


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