From the Bird’s Nest: Baseball at the Box
OK, let me get this out of the way first and foremost.
Alex Box Stadium is a palace.
LSU spent an awful lot of money to put this stadium together. And, they did it right. Great sight lines, plenty of concessions and restrooms. A beautiful edifice outside to welcome you to the park. Luxury Suites. A great press facility.
It says "big time college baseball" when you drive up.
I've been to a lot of venues in college baseball. The only one I've seen that rivals The Box is Hawks Field at Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska. I think that ballpark is a little better aesthetically. They have berms in the outfield instead of bleachers. Looks nicer. But that is not (technically) an on-campus facility and it wasn't totally built by the University of Nebraska.
The broadcast facility is top notch. The vantage point is as good as the one I experienced at AT&T Park in San Francisco a couple of weeks back. There's a big flatscreen for replays. Hot Dogs, popcorn and nachos in the press box. Baseball food. I like that, too.
They don't have the Cajun Cooking Club, though. They get demerit points for that.
Got to the ballpark on time, but missed LSU coach Paul Manieri, who had retired to the clubhouse by the time I got to the field to record Robe for pre-game. Robe was spot on in his pre-game analysis. The crowd at LSU has the ability to force you into making mistakes. He brought up opponents fielding percentage of .936 on the season and described it as "pitiful." And, how many times have you watched LSU games and seen the opponents' mistakes lead to big innings for the Tigers. But Robe also knew that Joe Zimmerman wasn't going to be intimidated. Zim was the starting pitcher for UNO a year ago when the Privateers (who were a terrible baseball team) went into the Box and beat LSU 4-3 last season. Tyler Jones was LSU's choice. He has been their midweek guy all season and had a rough outing in his last start at Nicholls State.
Back upstairs to finish game prep. Dawn Richard, who works with us at Townsquare and has been helping get photos on our Facebook page, came with me on the trip. Dawn is a big college baseball fan who roots for the Tigers and Cajuns. She grew up a big LSU fan but has added quite a bit of red to her wardrobe lately. Dawn looks great in red. We visited with Charlie Hanagriff and Jim Hawthorne before the game.
Dawn made the right choice in her wardrobe for the game, doncha think?
Let me tell you the other thing about Alex Box Stadium that impresses me. We hear all the time the stories of antagonistic LSU fans. And, those stories have merit. In fact, after the 2002 regional, my good friend Charlie Daigle, who passed away in December, said he would never go to another sporting event in Baton Rouge as long as he lived after being verbally abused by some ugly LSU fans. He was true to his word. But, while that segment exists, the folks who work at the Box on gameday are absolutely top-notch. There are greeters when you come into the ballpark, elevator operators, people stationed everywhere to help you find what you need. And every one of them does it with a smile. They add to the gameday experience.
I was curious how the Cajuns would play. By now, many of you know they held a players' only meeting after the tough loss to ULM on Saturday. They came out on Sunday and pounded out 16 hits in an 11-0 mercy rule win over the Warhawks on Sunday. But the Cajuns have struggled mightily all season with the bats and I wanted to see if they could swing with some arrogance two games in a row.
The question was answered early.
The Cajuns scored in each of the first three innings, and should have had more. They had opportunities with two outs that, with a timely hit, would have meant at least six runs instead of three. LSU got a Mason Katz homer in the second and tied it at three in the fourth with RBI singles from Trey Watkins and Raph Rhymes.
Jones, meanwhile, didn't get out of the second inning. After giving up four hits in the first, the junior college transfer walked two straight batters to start the second. After a Jordan Bourque sacrifice moved the runners up, Manieri pulled him from the game. Jones' numbers in his last two starts: seven earned runs in 1.1 innings. That's an ERA of 47.25. That is not good.
The game was tied until the fifth when, with one out, reliever Joe Broussard issued back to back walks to Lance Marvel and Daniel Nichols. Enter freshman Samuel Peterson, who had not allowed anything in his previous appearances. After getting Tyler Frederick to fly out for the second out, the Cajuns went to work. Chris Sinclair drove in a run with a base hit. Jordan Bourque doubled to drive in another. After Alex Fuselier was walked intentionally, Greg Fontenot hammered a single to score two and Jordan Porrier hit one off the centerfield wall to drive in two more. It all happened with two outs. The clutch hit, which had eluded the Cajuns in way too many games early in the season, came through four times in one inning. That gave the Cajuns a 9-3 lead.
LSU battled back in the bottom of the fifth, with Mike Lowery's two-out, two-run double getting the Tigers within four at 9-5. That ended Zimmerman's night. Zimmerman wound up giving up five earned in 4.2 innings. On paper that doesn't look like much. But the righthander never gave up a big inning and that's something Robe preaches constantly.
Enter Joey Satriano. Game over.
Satriano's stuff last night was as good as I've ever seen from him as a Cajun. He got Watkins to fly out to end the fifth. He started the sixth by making superfrosh JaCoby Jones look really bad on sliders. He gave up two singles the rest of the way and retired the last nine men he faced. He was easily the best pitcher on the field last night. And, he did it with just 51 pitches. He'll be available in the pen on Sunday.
Louisiana football coach Mark Hudspeth stopped by in the seventh inning. Coach Hud talked about the spring game coming up on April 9th and his observations after six spring practices. He said although his staff is busy, he wouldn't have missed last night's game for anything. Hud gets it.
Manieri got a good performance from Jimmy Dykstra, who got the Tigers out of the fifth inning and retired the Cajuns in order in the sixth and seventh. In the eighth, Manieri turned to Matty Ott.
The one-time lights out Tigers' closer got lit up Friday night against Florida and that may have been the catalyst for the Gators' sweep over the weekend. Ott was very ordinary at times last year, and although he had four saves to open the season, he got hit pretty hard against Cal State Fullerton and then gave up his milk against Florida. I remarked to a caller on Bird's Eye View before the Florida series that I wasn't sold on Ott. After the Florida series, Manieri hinted that he might look to Ryan Eades as his late inning specialist. My guess was his decision to pitch Ott last night was to see if Ott could slow down a team that was hitting the ball well all night long.
Last night Matty Ice wasn't even Matty-Ocre. He was bad. His fastball didn't have the velocity we've seen in the past, and it had no movement. Greg Fontenot led off the eighth with his fourth hit of the game and after Porrier flied to deep center, Mike Petello hit a ball down the left field line for his first home run as a Cajun, a no-doubter that had what was left of the Alex Box crowd buzzing. Matt Goulas and Nichols followed with sharp singles before Ott got out of the innings. My guess is if the Tigers need a save this weekend, you'll see Ryan Eades.
After the game, Manieri said the Tigers were outplayed in every facet of the game and he was right. The Cajuns hit better, pitched better and fielded better. And, with a road trip to a good Georgia team ahead, the last thing LSU needed was to go on a four game losing streak.
I think LSU has a very good team. The Cajuns last night took LSU's running game away by jumping out to an early lead. LSU got the lead man on just once in the first four innings on the Katz homer, and by the time Mikie Mahtook singled to open the fifth, the Tigers were down six. They aren't going to hit a ton of home runs; no one in college baseball is with these new bats. The Tigers will be very good on the weekend because their starting pitching is very good. And, they appear to have enough arms in the pen on the weekend to be fine, assuming that either Eades gets it done as a closer or Ott regains his form. But this overall isn't a tremendously deep pitching staff and LSU is going to have to do a lot of little things well, especially against good teams in the middle of the week if they're going to win consistently. I really believe that this will be a better team in May than they are right now. There are a lot of first year division I players being asked to play important roles. They'll only get better as the season evolves.
But last night, they were beaten by a couple of Joes.
And, make no mistake, the Cajuns earned it. I got hit with "we were flat" by a Tigers fan that I work with this morning. Flat, schmat. After a three game losing streak, you come out angry, not flat. The Cajuns jumped out early and kept the foot down for nine innings. I can't say that the Cajuns are a better team than LSU. The Tigers have a ton of talent. But they were certainly the better team last night, which happens in the game of baseball.
After the final out, there was no fist pumping, no smack-talking and no over-celebration by the Cajuns players. They acted like they've done it before.
After all, they have.
Now the task in front of them will be to go to Jonesboro, where they'll face some very good pitching in a park where it's tough to hit. There won't be a crowd to energize them. And, they'll have to beat a club that's owned them for the last four seasons or so.
I don't know if they've turned the corner. I just know that for the last two games, we've seen the Cajuns team we thought we'd see from the beginning.