Nothing says SEC Baseball like two historic powerhouses facing off as both teams look to take command of their respective divisions. LSU, the consensus #1 team in America, is traveling up to Columbia, SC to take on the Gamecocks, who are ranked #6 in the nation. Number 1 vs. Number 6. 27-2 vs. 25-4. Who has the edge in this pivotal series, and where does that advantage lie? I will be going position-by-position to see which team has the edge in this series. Without further ado, here we go!
Game 1 Starter: The Gamecocks will be sending Pre-Season All-American Will Sanders to the bump for Thursday's game. While he has not been what many expected him to be to start the year, there is a reason many evaluators had him as a 1st-rounder before the season. Unfortunately for South Carolina, they will be facing Paul Skenes. Skenes has been nothing short of dominant this entire season with a 0.81 ERA, 83 Ks in 44.1 innings. Skenes will sit 98-100 with his fastball and has a devastating slider. This is an arm who could slide into a Major-League bullpen right now and have success.
Game 2 Starter: LSU sends Junior RH Ty Floyd to the bump for game 2. Floyd is another hard-throwing arm that will pound the strike-zone with mid-to-upper 90s. The Junior has a 2.87 ERA and 36 Ks in 31.1 innings. South Carolina counters with a Junior RH of their own in Jack Mahoney. Mahoney, the owner of a 2.72 ERA and 38 Ks through 36.1 innings, has been the Game 3 starter so far this season, but questions surrounding the health of Noah Hall means Mahoney will take the ball in Game 2. There isn't much that separates these two arms, and it will be a very fun pitching duel to watch.
Game 3 Starter: South Carolina's Game 3 starter is up in the air due to the health questions, so we could see either Noah Hall, James Hicks, Eli Jones, or just a bullpen game. While Gamecock fans will hope to see a healthy Hall take the mound, there are a ton of quality options to turn to for the final game of this series. LSU has also had some uncertainty in the 3rd starting spot as they turn to Christian Little for just his third start of the season. For both teams, Game 3 has the feel of an all-hands-on-deck vibe, but, as always, starting pitchers set the tone.
Advantage: Slightly Gamecocks
Catcher: Both teams will rely on young backstops, just like they have all season. The Gamecocks catcher will be Cole Messina. After a rough freshman campaign, Messina has found a groove this season, hitting .316 with 10 HRs and 36 RBIs while occupying the cleanup spot in the lineup. Messina has also been very good for South Carolina behind the plate defensively. LSU will have highly-touted freshman Brady Neal as their starting catcher this weekend. Neal has had a knack for being clutch here over the past few weeks and has the tools to be a very good catcher in the near future, but a .241 batting average with 3 HRs and 9 RBIs doesn't match up in LSU's favor here.
1st Base: Talk about a loaded matchup. Gavin Casas (.308, 15 HRs, 36 RBIs) vs. Tre' Morgan (.330, 2 HRs, 20 RBIs). Two different hitters who offer completely different skillsets. Morgan barrels up baseballs, refuses to strike out (only 9 on the season), and gets on base. Casas looks to do damage by leaving the ballpark as frequently as possible. While he does strike out a fair amount, his 15 HRs are tied for 3rd in the nation. Morgan is slightly better defensively, but it is hard to not give the slight edge to a Mid-Season Golden Spikes Watch List Nominee.
Advantage: Very Slightly Gamecocks
2nd Base: South Carolina lost Will McGillis (.297, 10 HR) to a broken arm 23 games into the season and have turned to Michael Braswell to fill in during his absence. Braswell, SC's starting short-stop as a freshman last season, has been very good defensively and had a couple clutch moments in SEC play. LSU sends Gavin Dugas, a very experienced and dangerous hitter out as their 2nd baseman. Dugas is hitting in the middle of the order for the Tigers and owns a .356, 9 HRs, 28 RBIs stat-line. While McGillis might have made this conversation a little more interesting, his absence gives LSU a massive advantage at this position.
Advantage: Significant LSU
3rd Base: For the Gamecocks, Sophomore Talmadge LeCroy has done a great job transitioning from catcher to 3rd base in order to stay in the lineup. While he does not provide a ton of power from a stereotypically powerful position, LeCroy leads the team in free bases (16 BB and 13 HBP) while playing very solid defense. The problem is LSU has Tommy White. "Tommy Tanks" got off to a slower start than many expected this year, and he is still hitting .378, 10 HRs and 50 RBIs. While not great defensively, White's offensive prowess easily gives him the edge in this matchup.
Advantage: Significant LSU
Short-Stop: LSU SS Jordan Thompson has been exactly what LSU needed: capable with the bat but, more importantly, rock-solid in the field. The Tigers had a very notable issue defensively last season, and Thompson has been one of the main reasons LSU has flipped that script this season. Thompson has also been solid at the plate, hitting .295 with 2 HRs and 20 RBIs. Braylen Wimmer, to the surprise of many, turned down the draft to come back for his Senior season. Since returning, he showed the Carolina coaching staff that he can lock down short-stop defensively. He has also had his most productive season offensively as well, hitting .330 with 8 HRs and 28 RBIs. Thompson is better defensively, but Wimmer's ability to hit for average and power from the leadoff spot gives him the edge.
Left-Field/Right-Field: There has been so much turnover on both teams that it is hard to say who exactly will be starting on each given day. For LSU, Josh Pearson, Brayden Jobert, Paxton Kling, and even occasionally Tre' Morgan. South Carolina has cycled through Carson Hornung, Caleb Denny, and Dylan Brewer. No matter how you match these positions up, LSU's options have been playing much better than SC's options, although Brewer has been finding his groove in recent games. LSU will have the advantage in both corner outfield spots.
Advantage: LSU x 2
Center-Field: There is no more obvious choice on the field. It really would not matter who the Gamecocks put out in CF, which recently has been Evan Stone. Stone has elite glove skills and defense, and his bat has been improving this season, but he still is a glove-first guy. LSU, of course, has Dylan Crews. Crews not only plays an excellent CF as well, but he is currently hitting .531 with 9 HRs and 35 RBIs. He has also walked 31 times. There is not a better hitter in college baseball than Crews, and he gives them a massive advantage no matter who you matched him up against.
Advantage: Significant LSU
Designated Hitter: In a battle of impact freshman, both LSU and SC have to be surprised by how much much their star freshmen have been able to contribute. LSU's Jared Jones has been a monster at the plate, hitting .361 with 9 HRs and 31 RBIs. Against many teams, Jones would give LSU the advantage. The problem is that the Gamecocks have Ethan Petry. The Gamecock freshman owns a stat-line of .439, 13 HRs, and 42 RBIs. The notable part is that he has only heated up since SEC play has started (.474 with 7 of his 13 HRs and 18 of his 42 RBIs have come in SEC play). Both players have the ability to turn a game on its head with one swing, but SC has the edge in this matchup.
Bullpen: A classic debate of top-end talent versus depth, LSU has several power arms they rely on while South Carolina has a plethora of quality options. For LSU, the trio of Garrett Edwards, Griffin Herring, and Nate Ackenhausen all have sub-2.00 ERAs. Unfortunately, they do not have another healthy bullpen arm with more than 5 total innings with an ERA under 5.00. The loss of Chase Shores is a huge loss for the Tigers this weekend, especially since Christian Little is moving to the rotation for game 3. South Carolina has no such depth issues. Cade Austin, Austin Williamson, Eli Jones, James Hicks, Eli Jerzembeck, and Chris Veach have all thrown substantial innings and have ERAs under 3.00. Matthew Becker, their go-to lefty, has a 3.44 ERA. The Gamecocks might not have any guys that blow you away out of the bullpen, but they keep runs from scoring, and that gives them the edge.
Final Tally: LSU-6, Gamecocks-6, Tie-1.
Prediction: This is going to be a very competitive series with two very even, very competitive teams. If weather does not shorten the series, it will be very difficult for either team to complete the sweep. With the series being at South Carolina, I have to give the advantage to the Gamecocks. My prediction is that South Carolina wins the series 2-1 against the Number 1 LSU Tigers.