For most of the season, LSU coach Paul Mainieri has avoided talking about the big picture with his team. The 39-year coach has been preaching to take it one game at a time and that is still the message to some degree.
But now it's also time for the players to understand what they need to do in order to push for an SEC and NCAA tournament berth. The Tigers sit at 7-14 in the SEC and are jockeying for position with Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC West standings. The Crimson Tide sit at 11-10 in conference play while Auburn and Texas A&M are both 5-16 with three weekends to go.
For Mainieri, he's been in positions like this before and knows how the NCAA Tournament works. LSU has some quality wins, its strength of schedule is No. 1 or No. 2 in the country and its RPI is currently No. 25 overall. What the Tigers need from here on out are series wins.
"I don't often talk big picture with them because if you have a tough game and look to far down the line, it demoralizes the team," Mainieri said. "The truth of the matter is we're at the point in the season where we have to win series. If we want to get in the NCAA tournament, that's the reality."
If LSU can win these final three series, at the bare minimum, it would get the team to 13 or 14 wins in SEC play, right around the .500 mark. Combining that with winning half of their total SEC series and picking up quality wins over No. 1 Arkansas and a series win over top 15 Ole Miss, Mainieri believes that's enough to get LSU into the tournament.
"It shows the players it's been a tough year, it's been a grind but at the same time, all is not lost," Mainieri said. "With 12 games to play, we can still salvage team. It's not inconceivable that we could still finish sixth in the league. A lot of things can happen over the last nine games so you try to inspire your team with a big picture view once in a while."
For the players, the focus has remained on taking it one game at a time but they now know what it takes to get them in postseason position.
"Obviously it's a big weekend for us but we're just gonna take it one game at a time," third baseman Cade Doughty said. "That's been the whole mindset of the team throughout the whole year.
"We try not to look too far ahead, we like to go one game at a time but if you look at the big picture and look at what we have ahead of us, we know that we can play with anybody in the country," pitcher Devin Fontenot said. "We know we can beat these three teams."
The quest starts Thursday at Auburn, a team that, like LSU, has struggled this season in the SEC. In recent weeks, LSU has shown steady improvement in a number of key areas including getting runners in scoring position home on offense and continuing to help the pitchers out with stellar defense in the infield.
Doughty says the team has been putting in a ton of work on defense and that the results are just paying off. Whether it's him over at third, Jordan Thompson at shortstop or Tre Morgan at first, everyone has made some big time plays to keep opposing offenses at bay.
"We all feel good out there and putting in a lot of work lately," Doughty said. "Really trying to perfect our craft so we really feel confident out there and have been able to make some plays to help the team win."
With three winnable series left in the regular season, LSU has its work cut out to make that one final push up the conference standings. Historically, this team finds a way to play its best ball at the end of the season and that trend will need to continue starting with Auburn.