Three Up, Three Down

Three Up, Three Down

LSU rebounded in a big way this past weekend with a sweep of Florida. Aaron Nola continues to be remarkable, but a pair of slumps in the heart of the order are still a cause for concern. TSD's Hunter Paniagua breaks down all the positives and negatives for LSU baseball in this week's edition of "Three Up, Three Down."

THREE UP

The Tigers chomp the Gators

In only a week's time it seems that little series loss against South Carolina is practically forgotten. Coming off a perfect week, including a sweep of then-No. 21 Florida, the Tigers are back on track with that little speed bump against the Gamecocks doing little to derail their stellar season. The rebound started with LSU's routine midweek defeat of McNeese State, when the Tigers' bats awoke from the slumber that cost them wins on the previous Saturday and Sunday.

LSU carried that momentum into the weekend, and though the hits weren't exactly bountiful in the opener, they were timely and a great performance by Cody Glenn in his return to the rotation sealed the victory. Aaron Nola was jaw-droppingly good on Saturday (more on him below), and the offense had unprecedented success in the finale.

After the sweep, LSU is still 3.5 games ahead of Arkansas for the SEC West lead, and 2.5 back of Vanderbilt for the overall conference lead. With six games remaining on the schedule, LSU looks to be in tremendous shape to secure at least a top-two seed heading into the conference tournament.

A night off for the relievers

"You just can't expect him to go out there and pitch a complete game every time." That was the line following each of Nola's first three complete games. But after his fourth this past Friday, maybe it's time we do start expecting it each time he takes the mound. Nola was remarkable again on Friday, tossing nine shutout innings against Florida on only four singles, while walking away with his second SEC Pitcher of the Week honor this season.

That feat came with his own little piece of history as well. Nola became the first Tiger to throw two shutouts in a season since 2005, and the first to notch four consecutive complete games since 1993. His ERA is below 2 and his strikeout total (93) leads the league with him throwing more than one per inning.

The discussions have already started as to how high Nola could go in the draft next year. Only a sophomore, he's making an early case to be taken near the top as the unquestioned ace of this LSU pitching staff.

JaCoby Jones a complete player?

For the entirety of Jones' LSU career, the knock against him has always been his offense. The athleticism is there. The fielding is there. But where was his hitting? Perhaps he's starting to silence those doubters as he's slowly working his way into some respectable numbers.

Jones went 5-for-13 at the plate this past weekend, boosting his average to .284, which hasn't been that high since March 1. Since bottoming out at an abysmal .188 on March 31, Jones has seen his average increase with nearly every game — as has his run production. Jones brought in a run in each game of the Florida series, including a career-high six on Saturday. His grand slam against the Gators was the first for LSU since April 28, 2012.

With only a handful of games remaining in Jones' LSU career (as it's doubtful at best he returns for his senior season), fans may finally be getting a glimpse of what he can really do.

THREE DOWN

Mark Laird slumping in a big way

While Jones has seen his average rise over the last couple months, Laird's has gone in the complete opposite direction. Once at a remarkable .411 on March 10, Laird's average has dipped to .271 after a 0-for-11 weekend against Florida. Though Laird's start to the season was remarkable for a freshman, the complete dropoff in his offensive numbers is equally surprising.

His lack of confidence at the plate has been noticeable for the last couple weeks, and his biggest weakness has nullified his biggest strength. With Sean McMullen reaching base so frequently ahead of him, Laird's inability to bunt has been a glaring hole in his game, preventing him from using his speed on the base paths. Too often his sacrifice bunts fail, resulting in only another out on the scoreboard.

Jared Foster and Andrew Stevenson have become serviceable backup options for Laird, so LSU hasn't lost too much during his slump. But Laird has a long way to improve if he wants to live up to the expectations he set for himself early in the season.

Where has all the power gone?

Mason Katz's run production may be starting to turn the corner, but compared to where he was a month ago, he still has a ways to go. Katz had three RBI in four games this past week. The run he brought in against McNeese State was his first in 11 games. He still hasn't homered since March, and his average has fallen 68 points since April 10.

While the rest of the lineup somewhat rallied around him this past weekend, his production has been desperately needed in the heart of the order. The middle of the lineup was a big weakness against South Carolina, and the primary reason the Tigers lost Game 2 and 3. As I said before, perhaps Katz took a step forward this weekend, but he'll definitely need to get things going once tournament time is here.

The first one is always the hardest

Before LSU won 18-6 on Saturday, the Tigers were down 2-0 after a half-inning. Though Ryan Eades ultimately righted the ship, that first inning has been a tough one for him recently. In each of his last three starts, Eades has surrendered at least one run, and he allowed a pair in both of the last two games. The last time he didn't give up a first-inning run was against Arkansas, when he ultimately surrendered five in four innings of work.

Eades' performance Saturday wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. He settled in after first inning and fired five shutout innings. But it does put a little pressure on the offense to face an early deficit. For the most part, the Tigers have responded well, and it may actually a positive that they've been battle-tested as the tournament draws near.

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What are your expectations for LSU entering the final stretch of the regular season?

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