This past weekend’s series against Alabama was the halfway point in SEC play. The sweep put LSU in sole possession of first place in the West and tied with Kentucky for the overall lead in the conference. The match-up with the Wildcats in Lexington looms large next weekend, but now would be a good time to take a look at where this team has been able to position itself versus last year at this time and to hand out some midseason awards.
Last year after five weekends of conference play the Tigers had an SEC record of 11-4. To that point, LSU had played in eight one-run games against conference opponents, winning only two of them. They were swept twice, and had won only one weekend series.
This year the team sits at 11-4 in conference, having lost only one series while sweeping two. The Tigers have played only one more one-run game, yet have completely turned around their record winning seven and losing only two. If this is any indication, the Tigers are a more mature team, able to handle the pressure of close games, and more consistently providing clutch hits when necessary.
With that said, here is my list of midseason awards for the Tigers.
Key Game: LSU vs. Mississippi State (3/16/12)
The first game of the SEC season was also the first extra inning conference game LSU competed in as the two starting pitchers turned in masterful performances and stymied the opposition’s batters. Both starters – Kevin Gausman for LSU and Chris Stratton for MSU – had career highs in strikeouts as the Western division foes were only able to score two runs between them in nine innings. The winning run came for the Tigers when JaCoby Jones hit a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 10th to score Arby Fields for the 2-1 victory. This game would set the tone for the team moving forward as LSU has continued to use strong starting pitching, aggressive base running, and opportunistic hitting by both regular starters and bench players to win close games and keep pressure on opponents.
Offensive Player of the Year: Raph Rhymes
It’s hard to imagine a batter who could consistently face quality pitching like that in the SEC and still put up the kind of numbers Rhymes has been able to tally over the course of the season. He has maintained a batting average above .450 since the start of conference play, sitting at .476 currently, good enough to be the leading hitter in the league for much of the season. Rhymes has a .525 on-base percentage to go with his eye-popping average.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ty Ross
Ty Ross has the best fielding percentage among everyday starters and is one of the best defensive catchers in the SEC. This award could also easily be given to Ross as the most improved player. Putting him behind the plate has anchored the defensive set up for the Tigers. Mason Katz, though, does get honorable mention simply for his versatility and sureness at first.
Pitcher of the Year: Aaron Nola
Pitcher of the year could really go to a number of guys. All three of the weekend starters have been stellar and the bullpen has performed better than expected for much of the season, but Nola gets the nod. At the start of the season the big question concerning Nola was where he would fit in, whether he would be a go-to guy in the bullpen or move into a starting role. With early struggles plaguing Kurt McCune, Nola was tapped to start conference play as the Sunday starter and has excelled in that role. He has the highest ERA of the three weekend starters, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is better than both Gausman and Eades. He also has the lowest opponent’s batting average of the three and has given up the fewest hits.
SEC Tournament Predictions
This year the SEC tournament will expand to ten teams, meaning only two teams will be left out. With five weekends remaining in the SEC schedule, Alabama looks on its way to the very bottom of the league. Conference matchups against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Georgia left on its schedule loom large for the Tide, and it’s going to be hard for them to gain ground on the teams just above them. Alabama will be the first team out of contention for a tournament berth.
The second team is harder to judge. Ole Miss, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, and Vanderbilt will all by trying to stay in the tenth position in the standings to avoid missing the tournament. In the end, it’s hard to see Mississippi State winning more than five games over the remaining fifteen in conference play. If they don’t get above that they will join Alabama on the sidelines as the other ten teams move on to Hoover.
LSU and Kentucky are the favorites to grab the first and second seeds, and this weekend will go a long way in determining who gets the top seed. The team that ends up on the short end of the stick this weekend may see their dominance over their divisions ebb just a bit, but LSU has played its closest Western division foe. Kentucky still has to face Florida. All said, I expect LSU to wrap up the top seed in the tournament with the Gators coming in as the second seed. After that, anything can happen at the Met.