DAVID FOLSE II
CULTURE MEDIA STAFF WRITER
It’s now put-up or shut-up time.
Seventeen games into the 2023 season, make no mistake about it, Jay Johnson and his top-ranked baseball team have lived up to the hype.
But now, the real test begins. Johnson and the Tigers (16-1) start Southeastern Conference play on Friday on the road in College Station against Texas A&M. First pitch Friday is set for 6 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
The Aggies took two games from LSU last season in Baton Rouge. So the question heading into the conference opener is what do we know now about this LSU team that we didn’t know prior to the start of the season and what do we still want to know about the Tigers heading to Friday’s first pitch.
First, let’s start at the top.
LSU has a Big Dog at the top of the rotation and his name is Paul Skenes. Off to one of the best starts in school history, Skenes has proven to be the Friday night stud that you need to win games in this league.
Sporting a 4-0 record, with a 0.75 ERA , he’s only given up eight hits in 24 innings of work and struck out 48.
Granted, I know the opponents in the pre-conference schedule haven’t been great, but if you are limiting the opponents bats to a .099 average, you gotta be doing something right.
Johnson and his staff also deserve a tremendous amount of credit on the slow but very positive progression of Thatcher Hurd. He started against Southern and struggled, but bounced back with an impressive performance on the road at Texas followed up by back-to-back quality starts against Butler and Samford.
The most important thing that has come out of Hurd’s four starts isn’t the 2-0 record or the 2.04 ERA, it’s the 17.2 innings pitched without any re-aggravation of any sort of injury, mainly the back. He’s going to be in the starting rotation behind Skenes this weekend and I think it’s going to be on Saturday.
So that leave’s Sunday’s starter.
I don’t think it’s going to be Chase Shores and that is not a shot at the young right-hander. Shores, in my opinion, has the best stuff on the entire pitching staff in terms of god-given ability and that includes Skenes. The true freshman just isn’t ready yet in terms of experience and controlling those amazing talents.
Let’s get back to Sunday.
It comes with an * for me.
I think it’s going to be Christian Little *unless he is called upon from the bullpen in the first two games.
If Little is called upon to close a game or come in long relief, I believe junior Ty Floyd will get the start.
I’ve been very impressed with what Floyd has shown in terms of his full arsenal of pitches (yes, he has an arsenal of pitches now). For two years it was Floyd’s fastball and then nothing, but now, he has a nasty slider and change-up to go along with his high 90’s fastball. He gets the start Sunday if they have to go to Little in either of the first two games.
Speaking of Little, I have absolutely LOVED what he has been able to do in his six appearances. To me, I think he is the right-handed version of Riley Cooper; a rubber arm that can pitch multiple times during a weekend and can at any point during the game.
Now to the Gorilla Ball that is the LSU bats.
Through 17 games of action, this team reminds me so much of the 1997 National Championship team that pounded its way to an NCAA record 188 home runs. This LSU team can flat out hit, make no bones about that, and they are deep.
Yes, I recognize they haven’t played anyone and you can 100-percent throw in my face that the Iowa duo of Brody Brecht and Josh Simpson basically shut this offense down; I get that.
But, you can only play who you can play and LSU has shown that behind the long ball (34 home runs heading into Friday night) that they are going to put runs on the board.
The lineup has had what I like to call a tremendous calming down with Tommy White now once again healthy and locked in at the third base position. It took White a little while to get started at the plate after the shoulder injury in basically the first inning of the first game, but we are starting to see the “Tommy Tanks” that we saw last season at North Carolina State.
He’s tied for the team lead in home runs with Jared Jones with six and leads the team in runs batted in with 27 mainly due to the fact that he’s protecting that Dylan Crews guy in the lineup.
I thought that could be a problem coming into the season. I didn’t know how you handle Crews and White and who protects whom.
Johnson and the coaching staff have apparently found the sweet spot and it’s led to a ton of runs and hits as Crews is hitting .519, and no that’s not a typo, on the season with five home runs and 23 runs driven in.
Simply put, through the first 17 games of the regular season, Dylan Crews is the best college baseball player in the country and that’s not an opinion I expect to change at the end of the season either.
I was a bit reluctant to crown Dylan Crews outright the best player in the country this preseason. Wanted to see how others looked out of the gate.— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) March 12, 2023
Through 16 G, he's slashing .510/.632/.922 w/17 BB and 9 K
He's the best player in the country, bar none.pic.twitter.com/TavK2RkXhj
Complementing Crews in the outfield, freshman Paxton Kling has lived up to the hype. Hitting in multiple different spots in the order, Kling is off to a torrid start, hitting .425 and I think will see a tremendous amount of pitches, especially early in league play as SEC opponents will be in “prove it to us freshman” mode to start the year.
A trio of Kling-Crews-White has the potential to do a lot of damage.
Left field is really the only remaining question.
What does Johnson and staff do?
We have seen a multitude of different players in left, whether it be Tre’ Morgan, Brayden Jobert, Josh Pearson or Josh Stevenson. I think with White being healthy that puts Morgan back at first base for sure with Jared Jones being your designated hitter.
That leaves Jobert.
A player that I honestly didn’t expect to even be on this team this season and I gladly admit my mistake on this one, a slim-downed Jobert has proven that he can hit and more importantly not be a detriment in the field. I think he gets the first chance in left.
We talked already about Tre’ Morgan at first base, he’s entrenched at first base and is the definition of Mr. Reliable. He’s hitting .314 on the season, slugging .529 and is the best fielder on the team. That’s what Tre’ Morgan does.
I admitted my mistake with Jobert and I'm going to admit another big one at shortstop. My hats off to Jordan Thompson. The transformation for Thompson at short is absolutely impressive and he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. He’s solidified the Tigers up the middle and is the leader of a much better defensive team.
The other pleasant surprise is at second base. Didn’t see this one coming, but ole’ Mr. Wiley Veteran Gavin Dugas, who’s been here probably since Skip Bertman was coaching, is hitting .408, has five home runs, driven in 14 and hasn’t made an error on the infield. Whatever doctor did his eye surgery, boy talk about the perfect NIL deal, because man Dugas has proven that he belongs in the infield.
At Designated Hitter, Jared Jones is going to get the first opportunity and deserves it. The freshman Paul Bunyan has proven he has the ability to play on this level and I mean come on, four consecutive home runs in as many at-bats is impressive even if you are playing the little sisters of the poor.
If anyone is going to give Jones a run for his money at DH I think you could see Cade Beloso in spots. He’s proven to be a nice late-inning stick and swinging from the left-handed side will provide key in some match-ups, which Jay Johnson loves.
Finally, behind the plate, the Tigers are 1000-percent set with the combination of Brady Neal starting and Alex Milazzo coming in as a late-inning defensive replacement. Neal can hit and has proven it and is doing more than enough behind the plate.
Now, the question is, now with the start of conference play, we know the competition is going to ramp up quickly. How will LSU respond, because expectations are through the roof. Giddy-up time Tiger fans, SEC Baseball is here!!!
SEC BASEBALL WEEK ONE SCHEDULE
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, 6 p.m. ESPNU
Alabama at Florida, 6 p.m., SEC Network
South Carolina at Georgia, 5 p.m., SEC Network+
Mississippi State at Kentucky, 5:30 p.m., SEC Network+
Alabama at Florida, 5:30 p.m., SEC Network+
LSU at Texas A&M, 6 p.m., SEC Network
Tennessee at Missouri, 6 p.m., SEC Network+
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, 6 p.m., SEC Network+
Auburn at Arkansas, 6:30 p.m., SEC Network+
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, 11 a.m., SEC Network
Mississippi State at Kentucky, 1 p.m., SEC Network+
South Carolina at Georgia, 1 p.m., SEC Network+
Tennessee at Missouri, 2 p.m., SEC Network+
LSU at Texas A&M, 2 p.m., SEC Network+
Auburn at Arkansas, 2 p.m., SEC Network+
Alabama at Florida, 3 p.m., SEC Network+
Mississippi State at Kentucky, 11 a.m., SEC Network
Tennessee at Missouri, 1 p.m., SEC Network+
LSU at Texas A&M, 1 p.m., SEC Network+
South Carolina at Georgia, 2 p.m., SEC Network+
Auburn at Arkansas, 2 p.m., SEC Network+