by Matt Sefcovic (@MattSefcovic)
All eyes will be on Alex Box Stadium this weekend as Mississippi State (14-3) travels to Baton Rouge to take on a resilient LSU (15-3) team to begin SEC play. It will be the first true road test for the Bulldogs, although they played three games in Arlington against Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech to begin the season in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown. With the exception of Mississippi State playing a tough schedule to begin the season, both teams have very similar resumes heading into conference play. LSU enters this weekend as the #11 team in the country, which is good for 6th in the SEC. Once again, the SEC is the premier conference for all of college baseball and two of the best teams will be on display this weekend in one of the top-tier facilities in the country.
The Tigers have been an exciting group to watch this year, with many freshman stepping up in big situations. The score does not matter to this team, they have proven multiple times that they are never truly out of the game, mounting multiple comebacks in late-inning deficits. Cade Doughty has embraced his role this year, leading the offense with 8 home runs and 25 RBI while batting .340. After Doughty, LSU has four freshmen that have made their presence known for Coach Mainieri. Dylan Crews, Tre’ Morgan, Brody Drost, and Jordan Thompson are all in the top 6 in batting average for qualified players; they have combined for 14 home runs, 43 RBI, and 16 stolen bases. Crews leads the way with a .406 average and 6 home runs. The future is awfully bright in Baton Rouge as the Tigers lead the country in home runs with 35.
The Tigers pitching staff has struggled at times this season, especially against competition that does not stack up against what they will be facing in the SEC. They are currently ranked 76th in the country with a 4.02 ERA, but do have a few bright spots in the rotation. Landon Marceaux (2-0) has yet to allow an earned run in 4 starts, throwing 23 shutout innings, striking out 32 batters and only walking 3. Garrett Edwards, who leads LSU in saves with 2, has thrown 10 innings and has only allowed 2 earned runs. The Tigers Friday night starter, Jaden Hill, has looked impressive this year as well, with the exception of his start against Oral Roberts when he gave up 8 earned runs in .1 innings of work. If you take that start away, Hill has not surrendered another run all season.
If you were to sum up the Bulldogs lineup, consistency comes to mind. They only have two players batting over .300, Tanner Allen and Luke Hancock, but have a team batting average of .279. Coach Lemonis is a fundamentals guy and put a lot of focus on the small things. The Bulldogs do not strike out often, just 6 per game, and are ranked 17th in the country with 25 stolen bases. They are aggressive on the basepaths and put pressure on the opposing team, which will continue this weekend in Baton Rouge. Hancock currently leads the offensive charge with 5 home runs and is tied with freshman Kamren James with 18 RBI.
The Mississippi State pitching staff is one of the best in all of college baseball, boasting a 2.24 ERA, which is good for 7th in the country. The Bulldogs are also first in the nation in strikeouts per 9 innings, with 13.4 Freshman Jackson Fristoe (2-0), the Bulldogs Sunday starter leads the rotation with a 1.59 ERA and has recorded 22 strikeouts compared to 6 walks. Nine different pitchers on the staff have yet to surrender an earned run and 4 other pitchers have a sub-one ERA. Christian McLeod, the Bulldogs Friday night starter, is 1-1 with a 1.84 ERA but has only made it past the 4th inning in one of his 4 starts this season, a 5 inning performance against Eastern Michigan.
Many are calling for Coach Lemonis to shake-up the rotation and move Eric Cerantola to the bullpen after starting 1-1 with a 6.97 ERA. Cerantola has struggled finding the zone this season with a WHIP just shy of 1.7, walking 7 batters in 10.1 innings. At this point, no decision has been made about the rotation this weekend, but Cerantola will certainly have a short leash if he remains the Saturday starter.
Matt’s Prediction: This is a tough one, I lean towards the Dawgs, but Alex Box Stadium is a tough place to play. In the end, I think Mississippi State pitching staff will be too much for LSU. The Tigers schedule has not quite prepared them for this Mississippi State team, but I do not think they will lay down either. It does not get any better than this to start SEC play!