LSU sees recent surge as more than a ‘hot streak’

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU coach Paul Mainieri hardly seems surprised by his team’s current 14-game winning streak, which is now part of a 21-game stretch in which the Tigers have won 19.

It sounds like he saw it coming, even if others didn’t when the Tigers were stumbling in midseason.

“I always felt that we were OK and that we were on target, honestly. I wanted our team to be the better team at the end of the year,” said Mainieri. “If you’re perfect in the middle of the year, how do you maintain that for an extended period time?

“The team got better. We got more consistent. And all the facets of our game started to play better at the same time.”

LSU (46-17) is now two victories from the program’s 18th trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Starting Saturday night, the Tigers host Mississippi State (40-25) in a best-of-three NCAA super regional.

In late April, one might have wondered whether Louisiana’s flagship college baseball program was even the best team in its own state.

Tulane beat the Tigers in both meetings this season. LSU also lost both of its games against the University of New Orleans, where Mainieri once played. There was another loss to McNeese State. LSU narrowly survived its lone meeting with Louisiana-Lafayette, winning 3-2.

The Tigers have lost only twice since their second setback against Tulane on April 25. LSU’s recent surge has included a three-game road sweep of this weekend’s opponent.

Mississippi State first-year coach Andy Cannizaro, who previously served as one of Mainieri’s assistants at LSU, wants his squad to embrace the challenge of facing LSU.

“If you’ve got to get to Omaha, why not try to go through LSU?” Cannizaro said. “They’re a program that’s accustomed to going there.”

LSU, seeded fourth overall in the tournament, has scored nine or more runs in nine of its last 12 games, outscoring opponents 109-35 during that span.

“The last few weeks has just been something special and when you get on a hot streak like this you want to ride it as long as you can,” senior shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “But it’s been going on so long, I don’t know if necessarily you can call it a hot streak. We really are a good team and we’re just starting to put it together.”

Expectations were high entering the season because some of the top veterans were back, from starting pitchers Alex Lange and Jared Poche to Robertson and power-hitting right fielder Greg Deichmann. Also back is closer Hunter Newman, although he had to work his way through an early-season back injury.

Still, some young, unproven players had to grow into key roles.

Enter four freshmen: Pitchers Eric Walker and Zack Hess, as well as centerfielder Zach Watson and third baseman Josh Smith.

Walker (8-1, 3.46 ERA) locked up the role as LSU’s third starter and has been on the mound when LSU clinched the Southeastern Conference regular season title, the SEC tournament crown, and last weekend’s regional. In his last start, the righty lasted into the ninth without reaching one three-ball count.

This week, Walker, Smith and Watson were named freshman All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball magazine.

Watson, who wasn’t an every-game starter when the season began, hit four homers in three regional games last weekend.

“It took a while to figure out that Zach Watson should be in the lineup every day, and then when he got in the lineup, that he should be in center field every day,” Mainieri said. “He’s made an impact defensively as well as offensively.”

The right-handed Hess (6-1, 2.92 ERA, one save) began the year as a mid-week starter and moved to the bull pen in early April, which Mainieri said has “really helped.”

Now LSU is back to where it was this time a year ago, when it lost a super regional to eventual 2016 national champion Coastal Carolina.

“I’ve been preparing for this weekend since Coastal Carolina walked off on our field last year and dogpiled on my position,” Robertson said. “I’ve thought about it every single day. There have been nights when I toss and turn thinking about it.”

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