As its name indicates, the Intimidator towers over right field to remind opposing teams of the rich history of LSU baseball as they venture into Alex Box Stadium.
This weekend, however, the billboard’s luster may fall on blind eyes as No. 15 South Carolina treks into Baton Rouge to face No. 2 LSU (38-4, 15-3 Southeastern Conference) in a pivotal three-game set.
“We can say we won a national championship in 1991, but 90 percent of their team wasn’t born yet,” said LSU senior first baseman Mason Katz. “So I don’t think that really matters.
With three College World Series appearances in the last three seasons, and two national titles to boot, the Gamecocks come to the series as seasoned veterans of the atmosphere expected for tonight’s 7 p.m. first pitch.
One noticeable piece of the 2011 and 2012 national title-winning teams is absent because legendary skipper Ray Tanner accepted the athletic director position in July, handing over the reins to longtime assistant Chad Holbrook.
The transition appears to be seamless as Holbrook has guided the Gamecocks (31-11, 11-7 SEC) back into the top-15 fresh off a sweep of Kentucky last weekend.
“Ray Tanner built an amazing program,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “When I look at them, I don’t see a weakness. I see a solid team offensively and a good team defensively.”
In what has almost become a normal occurrence, the Tigers will face an entirely left-handed rotation, highlighted by Friday night starter Nolan Belcher, who posts a 1.70 ERA.
Belcher will face Tiger sophomore Aaron Nola, whose last two starts have yielded consecutive complete game wins in arguably his best two performances of the season.
In the two victories, Nola avoided the one bad inning that always seemed to plague him in previous starts, attributing his improvement to working better with runners on base.
“I’ve just been making those clutch, quality pitches when guys are on base,” Nola said. “I’ve just tried to get every single leadoff hitter out; that limits the damage.”
At the plate, Katz and senior left fielder Raph Rhymes have taken hold of a Tiger offense that has quieted as of late and prompted a lineup change.
Now with Katz hitting clean-up and Rhymes hitting fifth, both seniors are assured a bat in their hands as freshman phenom and leading hitter Alex Bregman patrols the three-hole.
The switch worked swimmingly on Wednesday, as Rhymes ripped three singles out of the five-hole, driving in two runs and pacing the Tigers to a 4-3 win against Tulane.
“I kind of simplified things,” Rhymes said. “I put the bat on my shoulder, relaxed, and it worked out for me.”
Mainieri said he still isn’t sure what he’ll do at second base and with a designated hitter against the southpaws. He gave Katz a crack at second base on Wednesday, where the senior played admirably as sophomore Tyler Moore got his chance to start at first.
Benched after a shoddy defensive effort last Sunday against Alabama, junior JaCoby Jones was inserted back at second in the seventh inning against Tulane and didn’t record a plate appearance.
Mainieri was tight-lipped over any possible scenarios, though he revealed Katz playing second is “one of the two options” but didn’t prognosticate beyond that.