Perhaps there's not a more daunting task at Alex Box Stadium this season than the one LSU faces in No. 2 Vanderbilt and it's loaded pitching staff. The Tigers come in as losers of five of their first six SEC games while the Commodores have won five of their first six.
Vanderbilt is led by pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, arguably the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the MLB draft later this year. Both have extremely powerful arms with the ability to touch 98-100 mph on a given pitch, making them undoubtedly the most powerful pitchers the LSU batters have faced to this point.
Rocker and Leiter have been on a tear to start SEC play as Leiter has opened up with 16 straight hitless innings of baseball while both he and Rocker continue to have extremely impressive ERA's through six starts on the mound. Leiter boasts a 0.25 ERA and Rocker a 0.73 ERA respectively while both have combined to go 12-0 on the mound and struck out a combined 112 batters in 73 innings pitched.
"All of the talk going into the season was that he [Rocker] was going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. And he very well could be but if he's not it's gonna be because his teammate is the No. 1 pick," Mainieri said. "These two kids are really good and I think the biggest shock is they both came to campus.
"It's a great challenge for our guys and a challenge our kids are really looking forward to and we're not gonna cower. We're gonna enjoy the opportunity. It's like I tell our players, your aspirations are to play in the major leagues, these are the kind of arms you'll face in the major leagues."
A challenge it'll be for this offense but the focus hasn't been lost on the offensive players. After a struggle against Tennessee to get baserunners home, the Tigers did that in bunches against a very good South Alabama team on Tuesday night at the Box.
Veteran outfielder Gavin Dugas, who just seems to be this teams resident clutch hitter, came through with one of the big hits that resulted in an 11-1 win. But he knows that facing Rocker and Leiter is a different beast all together.
"Obviously it's not hard to see they're pretty good pitchers but at the end of the day, we're just ready to face them," Dugas said. "We're excited to face the best competition in the country, that's why we came to LSU and we're excited for this weekend."
Another storyline heading into this weekend's series is the battle between not only Rocker and Leiter but the two going head-to-head with LSU starters Landon Marceaux and Jaden Hill. Marceaux has been one of the best pitchers in the country with a 0.26 ERA this season and Hill is without a doubt one of the top prospects in this upcoming MLB draft.
Marceaux actually played with Rocker in 2017 as a member of Team USA in high school and the two have great respect for one another. Both Marceaux and Hill are looking forward to going up against two of the country's very best arms.
"It's gonna be fun. They're two tremendous pitchers but I'm not pitching against them, I'm pitching against their lineup," Marceaux said. "Kumar's a huge competitor and since I've played with him, he's come such a long way and I'm looking forward to facing off against him."
"Definitely excited to go against those guys. I enjoy watching them and it's gonna be fun," Hill said. "I think everyone will take their game to another level and enjoy the weekend."
Mainieri said that by just looking at the forecast, the wind is supposed to be blowing in and the team expects it to be another low scoring affair. Because of the conditions, he's going to play for defense by putting Will Safford at centerfield and Collier Cranford at second base, two positions that are still going back and forth three weeks into conference play.
Because of the weather conditions, it'll be imperative that the pitching staff limits walks, errors and hit batters as much as possible this weekend. Against Tennessee, 23 free bases were awarded in the three losses so if LSU hopes to avoid a third straight losing weekend, that'll need to be greatly improved.
"We all kind of talked about it as a staff and that's really the one thing that kind of jumped out at us," Marceaux said. "We know that free passes, there's much less room for error. We really have to limit that and leadoff walks lead to score and we need to limit those because they always lead to a score."
Marceaux will start game one on the mound Thursday at 6:30 while Hill and Labas will take over pitching duties on Friday and Saturday.