OMAHA, Neb. — The Oregon State baseball team hasn’t lost since April 29. That’s 22 games without a loss. And that’s the challenge the LSU baseball team has ahead of it Monday night.
Sure, it’s not as if LSU is limping into the game. The Tigers have won 17 games in a row including wins over Auburn, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana and Florida State. But as tough as that competition was, none of those teams were the No. 1 team in America. None of those teams were 55-4 with one of the best pitching rotations in college baseball history, statistically speaking.
But it is possible to beat Oregon State. As Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook joked, the Beavers have lost four whole times. Here’s what the LSU baseball team needs to do to make that happen:
Stay within its offensive game plan
Oregon State’s pitching has been otherworldly in 2017. As a team, the Beavers have posted a 1.86 ERA with a .195 batting average against. Illinois-Chicago was No. 2 in the nation at a distant 2.65 ERA.
Let’s frame that a different way. Oregon State’s staff has allowed 374 hits this season in 538 innings. That equates to 6.26 hits per nine inning game, which is roughly 5 percent better than the Major League record for preventing hits in a career.
Of course, LSU won’t have to face Oregon State’s entire pitching staff. In fact, it actually gets to start out against the Beavers’ weak link. Scheduled starter Bryce Fehmel has a 3.80 ERA and a team-high 2 losses. That is not a typo. He also has allowed 6 home runs, another team high, and is the only Beaver who has allowed 30 earned runs this season.
The weakest part of Fehmel’s game is striking batters out. Fehmel pitches to contact, as he’s struck out just 45 batters and walked only 17 in 71 innings this season. He’s the type of pitcher who will throw a ton of strikes. That works well for LSU’s approach.
LSU isn’t the type of team that strikes out very often. The Tigers only strike out 5.8 times per game. (The SEC average in 2017 was 7.4 strikeouts per game.) Fehmel will pound the zone with strikes and try to get LSU to beat itself with soft contact and balls hit into the cavernous outfield at TD Ameritrade Park.
But Fehmel is precisely the type of pitcher the LSU baseball team should want to see. If it just sticks with the approach it’s had all season, LSU should be able to tack on a few runs.
What about when the LSU baseball team is on defense?
It might sound ridiculous to say this about a team that’s 55-4, but Oregon State isn’t actually all that great of an offensive team. Its team slugging percentage is .411, which is roughly halfway between the totals of notorious singles hitter Cole Freeman (.418) and even-m0re-notorious singles hitter Antoine Duplantis (.406).
Oregon State is capable of nickel-and-diming you with its .296 batting average and six starters with batting averages above .300. But LSU is hitting .294 this year and also has six starters with batting averages better than .300. And the Tigers have hit more than twice as many home runs and scored almost a full run more per game in the process.
The Beavers’ offensive star is Nick Madrigal, and he’s worth of all the attention he gets. Madrigal hit .385 this season with 19 doubles, 16 stolen bases and just 15 strikeouts. But after Madrigal, only one other Oregon State starter has a batting average better than .300 and and more than 20 extra-base hits.
Oregon State is effectively an offense made up of nine versions of Antoine Duplantis. Seriously. The Beavers get a lot of hits, most of which are singles, don’t walk very often and have a knack for moving runners around the bases.
That explains Oregon State’s scattered RBI numbers. Despite having 99 fewer runs batted in than LSU, Oregon State has seven players with 30 RBI or more, the same number as LSU. Whereas Duplantis and Greg Deichmann account for 31 percent of LSU’s runs driven in, Oregon State’s two leading run producers account for 25 percent of the Beavers’ RBI.
This could be good and bad for LSU given its starter, Eric Walker.
How Eric Walker factors in
Much like Fehmel, LSU starting pitcher Eric Walker loves to pitch to contact. Walker is a much better strikeout artist than Fehmel – 78 Ks in 93.2 IP – but he still prefers to control games by keeping the ball over the plate.
Given the way Oregon State slaps the ball around the field, this could be problematic. But Walker’s problem hasn’t been being singled out this year. He’s been a victim of the long ball. Walker has allowed 12 home runs and 19 doubles in 2017, which accounts for about 38 percent of the hits he’s allowed.
Since Oregon State isn’t a power-driven team and any attempts at power likely will be thwarted by TD Ameritrade’s spacious outfields and LSU’s speedy outfielders, this plays into Walker’s hands. Walker tends to get outs the way people want to give them to him, and oftentimes that’s by flyouts. If he can force Oregon State to get under pitches and pop the ball lazily into the outfield, he should be in business.
And if Oregon State stays low and puts the ball on the ground, LSU will have Josh Smith, Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman to clean up in the infield.
Is all this doable?
Yes. There’s no reason the LSU baseball can’t play a great game against Oregon State. But there’s also no reason Oregon State won’t play a great game against LSU. These are the two hottest teams in the country for a reason.
As is often the case, this game will come down to situational efficiency. It likely won’t matter which team gets the most hits; it’ll matter which team clusters the most hits together in one inning. As both LSU and Oregon State showed in their College World Series openers, these are teams capable of coming back from late deficits.
Monday night has the potential to be a classic game between two classically great teams. But, again, only one team can keep its streak alive.