Records can be deceiving.
On paper, this weekend’s three-game series between #2 Vanderbilt and #27 LSU looks anything but competitive.
That could not be any further from the truth, as the two SEC bluebloods will battle it out in Baton Rouge, beginning with a 6:30 p.m. EST contest on Thursday, followed by duels on Friday and Saturday. The series was moved up a day due to Easter Sunday on April 4.
Vanderbilt has rarely struggled this season, posting a near-perfect 20-3 record, having gone 5-1 in SEC play.
LSU, who began the season at #13, has failed to generate offense consistently, posting a 1-5 record in conference action. It is far from where the Tigers wanted to be heading into this marquee home series, but again, records are deceiving and LSU is a much better team than its record reveals.
The Tigers’ only SEC win thus far came in the series finale against #7 Mississippi State two weeks ago, as LSU was swept by #12 Tennessee this past weekend. Each of those games was decided by two runs or less, but the Tigers failed to connect at the plate when it mattered in the late innings.
Vanderbilt was the one doing the sweeping this last weekend, and took it to Missouri, outscoring the Tigers 24-6.
A large part of Saturday’s 11-3 win for the Commodores was due to its pitching. Co-ace Jack Leiter rises to the occasion every time he steps on the mound and almost everyone who follows college baseball has heard the right-hander’s name. In the victory over Missouri, he fired seven scoreless innings with no hits, just two walks, and 10 strikeouts.
Already this season, he has made headlines for a slew of dominant performances, a minute 0.25 ERA, and a perfect 6-0 record. Just two weeks ago, he retired 27 straight in a no-hitter against South Carolina, striking out 16. In fact, Leiter is averaging 1.63 strikeouts per inning, as few have been able to make contact when he is on the hill.
Leiter relies heavily on his curveball, which allows him to mix speeds and keep batters on their toes, as the pitch goes from right to left, breaking just before the plate. His slider is above average as well, meaning LSU will be in for a challenge Friday afternoon against Leiter’s secondary pitches.
Things will not be any easier in game one for LSU, as Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker will earn the start. Vanderbilt very much relies on its pitching to win games, especially the first two of a series.
Rocker will undoubtedly be a top five pick in the MLB Draft, and his stats back that up. The right-hander also has a sub-one ERA (0.73) and a perfect 6-0 record. Though he has allowed nine more hits than Leiter this season, 16 hits through 37 innings is still an impressive feat.
The only question mark in Vanderbilt’s starting rotation is Thomas Schultz, a right-hander, who is 2-2 on the season with a 5.14 ERA. He has struggled throughout the season but recently gave up just five hits and one run in a 3-1 victory over Missouri.
As good as Vanderbilt is on the mound, LSU has shown just as much talent at the plate. Four hitters; Dylan Crews, Cade Doughty, Tre’ Morgan, and Gavin Dugas, enter the series hitting above .300 on the season, and a duo of freshmen in Jordan Thompson and Brody Drost have shown promise against strong SEC pitching.
Crews, a true freshman himself who was projected by many to go high in the MLB Draft but opted to play at LSU, has surprised many across the country with his offensive firepower. A true five-tool player, he will be hard for even Vanderbilt’s pitching staff to keep off the basepaths. The Longwood, Florida native can hit the ball a mile, and has shown it with a team-leading eight home runs. His .483 on-base percentage also ranks as best on the team and fourth in the SEC. One of just three players on LSU’s roster who has started all 25 of the team’s games this season, his plate appearances against Rocker and Leiter will be must-see moments in the first two games. Though the Tigers have plenty of standout sluggers, Crews has to be hitting in order for the Tigers to have a shot at taking at least one, if not two games.
The fact that this series is being played in Baton Rouge adds another element to the equation. Alex Box Stadium was voted by players as the best ballpark, other than their home stadium, to play in. Interestingly, it is also one of the toughest places for visiting teams to play, as the LSU crowd provides a raucous atmosphere, and the Tigers are 15-5 at home this season.
Riley's Prediction: Vanderbilt’s pitching is top-notch and I do not see LSU having an easy time at the plate, no matter where the series is being played. While I think the Commodores have the advantage, especially in the series’ first two games, LSU will give Vanderbilt a challenge, and the Tigers look to have the edge on Saturday. Frankly, as good as the Tigers are at the plate, I’ll take Vanderbilt riding its starters to claim the first two games before LSU’s bats kick in against Schultz in game three.