Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:56 PM
BATON ROUGE — Historically, when faced with a pitcher the caliber of Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray, the only question mark for LSU would be how and where to notify the poor chap’s next of kin.
The wake of LSU’s glory days was littered with high profile, higher draft-pick carcasses of hot-shot pitchers.
They could occasionally get tied up in knots by some lame soft-tosser who drew the short straw and was given a last meal before taking the mound against Gorilla Ball.
But if the guy on the mound had eyes on a major league career, the Tigers were just licking their chops and fighting to get into the batter’s box.
There’s a long list of them dating to Tyler Greene of Wichita State to Miami’s J.D. Arteaga to Southern Cal’s Mark Prior, but perhaps most famously Stanford’s Kyle Peterson, who before he was ESPN’s lead college baseball analyst was the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft.
A few days later, he had the misfortune to run into Gorilla Ball.
Peterson still enjoys delighting LSU fans with his nightmare afternoon in Rosenblatt Stadium against the Tigers in 1997.
He was an Omaha native, a beloved one at that, so it was one of the few times up there that the Tigers didn’t have the local Omaha fans, the famed Cornfield Alumni, in their back pocket.
Although Peterson did eventually make the major leagues, he probably starting thinking about a broadcasting career that very day. LSU scored three in the first off him and eventually chased him with nine hits, three of them home runs, and seven runs in five innings.
It’s nice to know he wasn’t permanently scarred, and in fact many of those high-profile victims went on to live productive lives.
That was then — when the NCAA let the LSU lads swing some honest, radioactive aluminum.
These days, with neutered bats, the high-profile pitchers have a fighting chance.
In fact, as good as LSU has been this season — and no other Tiger team has ever been 55-9 — they have looked fairly human against the better pitchers.
Arkansas’ Ryne Stanek, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick, No. 29 overall, may be the closest thing to Gray LSU has seen this year, shut the Tigers down twice — scoreless over his seven innings in Fayetteville; one unearned run in eight innings in the SEC tournament.
Texas A&M’s Daniel Mengden held them to one run in eight innings.
There was, on the other hand, Ole Miss’ Bobby Wahl, who gave up seven runs in one inning to an LSU lineup that had emptied the bench for Senior Day.
But that’s been the exception, which has a lot of Tigertown jittery heading into tonight’s pitching showdown between Gray and LSU’s Aaron Nola.
It doesn’t set up particularly well for the Tigers, at least in the opener.
Nola will surely do his part.
But if there’s been a hole in an otherwise rock-solid LSU baseball team, it’s been the struggle to manufacture runs when the hits aren’t falling in the gaps.
They have made some impressive strides in the transition to small ball.
They have a couple of three guys who can be trusted to occasionally get a bunt down and there’s a lot more speed, but the baserunning has still only been upgraded from comical to mediocre.
They did manufacture the winning run in extra innings against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament title game, and the key sequence in a comeback against Sam Houston State in the regional came on a hit-and-run, double-steal.
But fans at Alex Box Stadium still cover their eyes when it looks as if LSU is up to something fancy on the base paths, and you can generally count on one major running mishap per game.
Oklahoma would seem, on paper, to be much more adept at this sort of thing. The Sooners have almost twice as many sacrifices as the Tigers, 75 to 40.
There is, however, a solution.
LSU’s opener in the 2000 College World Series came against a Texas team that was the great hope of anti-Gorilla Ball crowd, fairly well pestering teams to death with efficient hit-and-runs and a never-ending string of annoying sacrifice bunts.
At the time, of course, LSU wouldn’t have known a sacrifice bunt if it sang the national anthem a capella.
But the day before the game, at an Omaha high school field, was perhaps the only time I ever saw Skip Bertman pay attention to an off-day workout by his Tigers. Normally the assistants would handle it while Bertman relaxed and swapped stories with the media in the dugout.
LSU still was taking a rather laissez-faire attitude toward defense in those days, but this day Bertman was hands-on and everywhere, pressuring his defense with every known bunt situation known to man or Gorilla.
It was one of the few times they ever broke a sweat, and he must have irritated them.
The next day, against another renowned Longhorns pitcher, LSU scored four runs in the first inning, another in the second and the pretty well took the bunt out of Texas’ limited options.
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org