As a reward for upsetting Cal St. Fullerton in the Super Regionals, UCLA gets a date with LSU in their first game of the College World Series. That means a match-up with the most talented team in Omaha and if you ask anyone, the favorites to capture the national title.
To get a better look at the Tigers and their excellent team, we tapped PodKATT from SB Nation's LSU blog And The Valley Shook. His take was pretty much what was expected -- LSU is really good.
(I answered some questions from PodKATT on the Bruins right here.)
Aaron Nola has been nearly unhittable all season, and he was last week in the Super Regionals, but Sam Houston St. got to him in the Regionals. Admittedly, all the runs were unearned, but was there anything from that game that might give UCLA a clue as to how to get to Nola and is there any chink in his armor that the Bruins can try to exploit?
Getting some lucky breaks against the defense may be the best strategy. Nola is the kind of pitcher who settles in really quickly and will try to blow you off the plate. He's got great control and I honestly haven't seen him have a bad day throwing in almost a year. Even when he's not at his best or is starting to tire, he's great at making hitters put the ball in play and letting the stellar infield D take over.
If UCLA wants to beat Nola, they need to be exceedingly patient at the plate and let that pitch count climb quickly, because the best way to beat Nola is to get him off the mound. Even then, UCLA will need to take advantage of any mistakes made by LSU fielding. I feel like I might sound like a bit of a homer describing how hard it's going to be, but Nola honestly is that good. I've got no reservations about saying he's the best starting pitcher in College Baseball this year.
LSU's bullpen was supposed to be their weakness, but despite not having many traditional flamethrowing relievers, all they have done is get outs all season long. How does Paul Mainieri use his 'pen and how good are they?
The bullpen is large but their usage really depends on the situation. When Nola or Eades are having a good day, Mainieri will stick with the starters as long as possible, which in Nola's case has led to a handful of complete games this season. When things turn south, LSU's relief has what we've referred to as a "Johnny Allstaff" approach. There are 5 or 6 relievers who will come out and throw from 1 to 2 1/3 innings of work and then are quickly replaced by the next man up until the 8th or 9th is reached and it's time to bring in the closer. Mainieri doesn't play the lefty-righty game much (not on the mound, anyway) but once the relief starts there are almost always multiple arms up warming.
And then there's Chris Cotton. A fireball he aint (I remember once this season he was getting Ks with a 78 MPH strikeout pitch) and after seeing reliever after reliever who try to blow you away, he catches hitters off guard as they try to slow their swing down to his speed. On a second time through the lineup, a hitter might have adjusted, but usually no one gets a 2nd chance against Cotton
The Tigers' offense hits for average and power, but maybe most impressively, they do it while also working counts and drawing walks. Is there any sort of pitching or approach that has given LSU problems this season?
LSU's hitters have had problems against varying approaches over the season, but usually not all at the same time. Raph Rhymes' great swing isn't powerful by any means, but their were portions of the season where he was a double play machine whenever he put the ball in play. JaCoby Jones has really turned things on lately, but at one point this season he was well under .200 and would take a called strike three as if he was asking for it.
If you're looking for a way to beat LSU at the plate, you can look at Jonathan Gray's approach in the first game of the Super last weekend. An elite pitcher can blow away the Tigers, as Gray did until the very end of the game. If Gray had gotten just a little run support to go along with his stellar outing, this might be a very different weekend.
LSU built its reputation in the Gorilla Ball era and were the poster boys for the big offense, outscore the other teams approach, but under Mainieri they've become as much of a pitch and catch team, if not more so, than an offensive juggernaut. How would you describe the LSU program today?
In many ways LSU is still a big offensive team, only adjusted for the modern realities of the game. The Tigers led or tied the SEC in most of the power offensive categories this season, but those numbers pale in comparison to what was possible even just 5 years ago. It took some time to adjust the program in a world where you can't count on a big home run to bail the team out of a jam, but I think Mainieri has done a good job at building a team that's trying to get the double in the gap instead of swinging for the fences.
In this new reality, LSU's general pitching approach has adjusted as well. There is still the occasional superstar who will blow folks away, but your typical LSU pitcher wants to put the ball in play and allow an infield defense that emphasizes the fundamentals or the extremely speedy outfield (usually former football players) to take care of the rest.
On paper, LSU is undoubtedly the best team Omaha, but if one thing dooms the Tigers in Omaha, what will it be?
LSU is so well rounded this year that I don't think just one thing going wrong would do them in. It would have to be a combination of a bad day for the starting pitcher, the defense making a bunch of uncharacteristic mistakes, and a matchup against a talented pitcher who's got the stuff to make LSU miss. You have to get ahead of LSU early and force them to be impatient at the plate. Get LSU frustrated and the mistakes will compound on themselves.