Last Modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 11:56 AM
As usual, the Southeastern Conference baseball race will come down to the final week of the season, highlighted by LSU’s trip to South Carolina.
“As a baseball player, you look forward to situations like this,” said LSU shortstop Austin Nola, one of the few Tigers who swung a hot bat while dropping two of three last weekend to Vanderbilt. “Everything’s right there in front of you to accomplish.”
The Tigers have plenty of company for the early weekend, with the final series’ running Thursday-Saturday to rest up for next week’s SEC tournament beginning on Tuesday.
LSU has clinched the West Division title and a first-round bye in the SEC tournament. But four teams still have mathematical chances of at least tying for the overall SEC championship.
LSU enters the final series one game behind Kentucky (41-12, 18-9) for the overall race and a half-game behind South Carolina (38-13, 17-9) which had a game at Georgia canceled by rain last weekend.
Kentucky plays three games at Mississippi State beginning tonight.
Kentucky has the tie-breaker advantage over LSU and would be the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC tournament if they end up knotted. But the SEC would recognize any tied teams as co-champions.
Florida (38-15, 16-11) could also sneak into a tie for the top spot with a sweep at Auburn.
For LSU, basically the Tigers need to win the series with South Carolina and win one more game than Kentucky.
“We’ve got to go out there and play our best baseball. That’s all I know,” Nola said. “Winning the league would be fun, too.”
South Carolina didn’t look like much of a contender early, starting off SEC play 1-5.
But the Gamecocks, now ranked No. 2 in the nation, have been the hottest team in the SEC ever since and come into the crucial series having won 14 of their last 16 conference games.
“Our players are excited,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We have so much respect for (USC coach) Ray Tanner and his program.”
The series features the last three national championships as LSU won the College World Series in 2009 and the Gamecocks won the last two.
“It should be a series the entire nation will be watching,” Mainieri said.
They will have the chance, at least, as all three games will be televised beginning at 6 p.m. today on Fox Sports. Friday’s 6 p.m. game will be on CST and Saturday’s noon game on ESPNU.
LSU should feel right at home at Carolina Stadium, the closest thing, according to Nola, to the raucous atmosphere the Tigers enjoy at Alex Box Stadium.
“It’s up there,” Nola said. “I played there my freshman year, and it was the first series in that new stadium and it was awesome.
“The fans are right on top of you. It’s literally like you put the wall like right there, and they’re on top of you.
“So it’s fun. And I really like the way they (USC) play the game. They play hard and similar to us. So I’m really looking forward to this weekend.”
Tonight’s opener features two of the top pitchers in the league when LSU’s Kevin Gausman (8-1, 2.95 ERA) duels South Carolina lefthander Michael Roth (5-0, 2.80).
LSU will be without starting catcher Ty Ross, who underwent an appendectomy before last Saturday’s game with Vanderbilt. Ross leads the league in runners thrown out, but in his absence in the final two games last weekend, Vanderbilt went 9-for-9 on stolen bases against backup Jordy Snikeris. Ross is expected to miss two weeks.