The LSU Tigers are peaking at the right time having won eight consecutive games, including the Southeastern Conference tournament. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Friday, May 30, 2014 11:53 AMIn the end, LSU’s Paul Mainieri slapped himself in the forehead and told himself to quit overthinking the situation.
So, of course, he’s going to send a freshman to the mound to open LSU’s quest for Omaha when the Baton Rouge regional opens today with the Tigers playing Southeastern Louisiana at Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field.
And, of course, Aaron Nola will be there to pitch in what, one way or the other, is typically the pivotal second game for the Tigers.
“Sorry for keeping you on the edge of your seats all week,” Mainieri said Thursday as the Tigers went through a final workout before the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers (44-14-1) started grooming Poché for this role three weeks ago when he pitched the opening game of the final regular-season series against Auburn. He also led off on the mound for the Tigers in last week’s Southeastern Conference tournament.
That was before Mainieri knew who the opponent would be, but his left-hander certainly passed the audition — Poché allowed one run over 15 innings in those two starts.
Poché (9-3, 1.21 ERA) pitched so well, in fact, there was a temptation to hold him back a game or two with the Tigers opening with the fourth-seeded Lions (37-23).
“Sometimes you can pitch off and save your No. 1 and 2 (pitchers) for Game 2 and 3,” Mainieri said. “I just didn’t feel like we could do that this week. I have too much respect for Southeastern and the caliber of their starter.”
The Lions, who have won eight of their last 10 games and made the NCAA tournament by sweeping four games in the Southland Conference tournament, will counter with ace Andro Cutura (10-2, 1.72).
“I feel like Poché is a good matchup against them,” Mainieri said. “I feel like he can go out there and lead us off, and if he does — I’m confident that he can — than he can have success.
“But he’s going to have to pitch well. This is a good team we’re going up against and their pitcher is really tough.”
No. 2 seed Houston (44-15) meets No. 3 seed Bryant (42-14) in today’s other game at 7 p.m.
Complicating Mainieri’s plans, the right-handed Nola (10-1, 1.72), who was named first-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball on Thursday, would be projected to face seven left-handers if the Tigers play Houston in the second game.
That’s what Mainieri was contemplating, along with a scouting report that the Cougars love to steal bases and left-handers traditionally hold the running game down better.
“Then,” he admitted. “I kind of slapped myself and said, ‘We might not even be playing Houston in the second game.’ There’s a chance we could be playing Bryant, who is a very good ballclub. I was kind of outthinking myself.
“And there’s no guarantee we’re going to beat Southeastern. Their pitcher is really tough. I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re going to go in assuming it’s going to be a tight, low-scoring game.”
Having Nola available for the key second game, Mainieri said, “Doesn’t do us any good if we don’t win (against SLU).”
The Tigers, who lead the nation with a school-record 17 shutouts, have outscored opponents 87-8 during their eight-game winning streak.
“I do feel like we’re peaking at the right time,” Mainieri said.
Though only 40 miles apart, LSU and Southeastern played only once this season, in Hammond, with the Tigers winning 7-3 on Feb. 19.
“It’s a familiar opponent and a familiar venue with Alex Box Stadium, one of the best college baseball venues in the country,’ SLU coach Matt Riser said. “Our guys are excited about the opportunity.
“We talked about making history and we’re writing our story right now. If we had gone to ULL or Ole Miss or Rice (for regionals), obviously we wouldn’t have had the story with LSU. This is our best opportunity to have a chance to write our own story and make history.”