TigerDetails - LSU goes for a fourth straight SEC series win starting Friday vs. Ole Miss
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LSU goes for a fourth straight SEC series win starting Friday vs. Ole Miss

LSU’s starting pitchers are averaging just under four innings in SEC games, the Tigers’ fielding percentage ranks 12th in league and the team’s best hitter who’s fourth in the conference in batting average is temporarily out of action with a broken finger.

But countering with superb relief pitching combined with clutch hitting that has produced a 7-3 record in one-run games, 17th-ranked LSU finds itself tied for third in the SEC heading into its final three-game home league series of the regular season vs. Ole Miss starting with Friday’s opener at 7:30 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium.

The Tigers (33-15, 14-10 SEC) of first-year head coach Jay Johnson, who have won three straight league series the past three weekends over Missouri, Georgia and Alabama, are trying to become the first LSU team since the 2017 College World Series squad to win four consecutive SEC series.

Ole Miss (28-19, 10-14 SEC), with eight of nine positional starters returning from last season’s 45-22 that lost in the Super Regionals at Johnson-coached Arizona, was this year’s preseason pick by the SEC coaches to win the 2022 league championship.

The Rebels have won just three of eight SEC series and didn’t win a league home series until last weekend over Missouri. But Johnson expects a battle in the Box as LSU tries to continue to pile enough wins to host an NCAA regional.

“Especially at full strength, which they are, Ole Miss has one of the best offenses in the SEC,” Johnson said. “My team at Arizona played them in the Super Regional last season, and it’s the exact same team. Every player that was in their lineup last year is back on their team this year. Their lineup is really deep, and they always do a good job with the pitching in getting guys lined up.”

Johnson has grown to accept that he has to push a bunch of strategic buttons with his pitching staff since his starters (with the exception of Ma’Khail Hilliard) have failed him time and again.

Last weekend when the Tigers won their SEC series at Alabama, Hilliard lasted four innings as the first game starter. But second-game starter Blake Money and third-game starter Samuel Dutton both failed to make it out of the first inning.

Hilliard is the only LSU starting pitcher in SEC play who has lasted five or more innings in five of his eight league games. It has forced Johnson to use five or more pitchers in 11 of 18 SEC games.

Eric Reyzelman and Riley Cooper are second in the SEC in relief appearances with 24 each and Paul Gervase is sixth with 22.

“Paul Gervase has had a really good season, really, really reliable,” Johnson said. “Riley Cooper really just getting us out of the weeds time and time again against the best hitters on the other team. Eric Reyzelman coming back off of Tommy John (surgery) has been a mound presence. We feel good about Devin Fontenot.

“There have been a lot of guys who have contributed for us. I think it took them some time to understand what the heck is this guy (Johnson’s frequent pitching changes) doing? They're kind of embracing it, they're all doing a good job and it has led to a lot of our success.”

Johnson noted a couple of weeks ago he had to navigate not having a set starting rotation as Nevada’s head coach in 2015 when his team won the Mountain West Conference.

“We actually had a very good pitching staff, but it depended on the matchup of the team of who we started,” Johnson said. “We literally use like six starters in conference play. And so that's probably the closest thing I can come up with.

“Trust me, nobody more than me who wants to get Friday, Saturday, Sunday and even Tuesday lined up (with starters) going six to seven innings every time. We've kind of withstood it. We're going to need to continue because I really think that's our team in 2022.”

There’s hope that lefty reliever Jacob Hasty’s late-season improvement can develop into an even bigger role. He has lowered his cumulative ERA to 1.06 in 17 innings, allowing only a .130 opponent batting average. Last week in three relief appearances, he earned two wins while recording six scoreless innings with two hits, no walks and eight strikeouts.

LSU has survived lack of starting pitching because of its hitting. The Tigers are second in the SEC in seven hitting categories such as batting average (.294), runs batted in (.365) and runs scored (386).

Center fielder Dylan Crews, who’s hitting .340 and is third in the SEC in RBI with 54, stepped up his offensive game last weekend at Alabama when LSU’s leading hitter third baseman Jacob Berry missed the final two games with a broken finger.

Crews won SEC co-Player of the Week honors batting a sizzling 636 (7-for-11) in the series with one double, three homers, seven RBI and five runs scored.

Johnson said Thursday that while Berry’s injury is progressing, he likely won’t play until next weekend’s SEC season finale series at Vanderbilt.

“No one wants to play more than that guy,” Johnson said of Berry, who’s hitting .378 with 15 homers, 46 RBIs and an SEC best .395 batting average in SEC games. “He’s keeping the rest of his body in shape. He’s tracking pitches in the bullpen, he’s fielding ground balls, he's conditioning.”

Former LSU catcher and assistant coach Mike Bianco, in his 22nd season as Ole Miss’ head coach, is trying to rally his team to qualify for the SEC tournament that starts May 24 in Hoover.

"We've been so close even before this past weekend, winning on Fridays and then playing really close and pretty good baseball on those Saturdays and Sundays for the last month but haven't had a lot to show for it, haven't played well enough to win in our league," Bianco told Ole Miss beat reporter Nick Suss of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Hopefully this will keep us going when we get down to Baton Rouge."