LSU’s path to hosting an NCAA regional got rockier after a series sweep at the hands of Ole Miss. It’s a tall task, but it’s still possible.
The Tigers had 13 wins in Southeastern Conference play last year, when they had to go on the road for a regional in Eugene, Oregon. This year, they have 14 SEC wins — and with their final three regular-season games at Vanderbilt, they have an opportunity to make a last-ditch case for hosting.
The Commodores are No. 3 in the RPI rankings, and LSU is facing them on the road, which means the strength of a sweep could put them back in conversation to host again.
“There is still that outside-the-box chance. You couldn’t find a better team to have this week, going on the road up to take on a team that I think is one of the last hosting squads,” SEC Network host Peter Burns said. “If they’re trying to compare head-to-head résumés, a series win on the road in front of the committee would go miles.”
SEC Network analyst David Dellucci said that even capturing one of three games on the road will at least ensure LSU’s presence in the NCAA tournament, albeit as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. But at No. 34 in the RPI rankings, it’ll take not just a convincing series win but a strong showing in the SEC tournament for LSU to host.
“Ole Miss had 18 wins last year and they hosted in the first round. Now they had an RPI of 11, and you’ve got to get the wins,” Dellucci said. “Tennessee had 20 wins and they were a national seed; Florida had 17 wins and an RPI of 26, and they hosted the first round. LSU has got to get 17 wins, and that basically solidifies them to host the first round — so (they need to) sweep this weekend.”
One thing’s for sure: If LSU gets the wins, networks love to broadcast a location that brings a good crowd, which is why the Tigers are never out of the conversation, Burns said.
But whether the Tigers host a regional shouldn’t be the main concern.
“It doesn’t do any good to host without front-line pitching, but almost everybody outside of Tennessee this year has been unable to find two solid starters,” Burns said. “Ole Miss completely changed their mentality, bringing bullpen guys out first, as opposed to traditional starters, and they’ve found success. But you’re running out of time to figure out your rotation.”
Vanderbilt has also started to find a stronger starting rotation, moving left-handed freshman Devin Futrell from midweek starter to the Friday night position. He holds a 2.52 ERA and 8-1 record through 53⅔ innings, having struck out 59 batters and walked eight.
The Commodores are also starting another freshman on Sundays in left-hander Carter Holton, who has a 3.42 ERA through 68⅓ innings. Chris McElvain has also been consistent in the Saturday spot, with a 3.93 ERA through 68⅔ innings.
And while LSU has the No. 4 ERA in the conference at 3.97 (Vanderbilt is No. 2 with 3.39 ERA), the Tigers have relied heavily on their bullpen.
First-year coach Jay Johnson pulled starting pitcher Devin Fontenot after 1⅓ innings on Saturday against Ole Miss, and he pulled Sam Dutton after facing one batter Sunday.
Blake Money, LSU’s No. 1 starter at the beginning of the year, lost his grip on the Saturday spot after his start at Alabama May 7, when he allowed two earned runs on two hits and two walks within the first inning.
The problem, as Burns sees it, is that pitching is what carries a team through postseason more than offense.
So the concern isn’t about whether LSU should host a regional.
“Is Jay Johnson sacrificing batting average for fielding percentage? Because if you don’t have pitching, then you better have fielding,” Burns said. “I think that’s what’s standing in the way of them hosting right now.”