Closing Time: Vanderbilt hosts LSU in final regular season series

The LSU Tigers arrive in Nashville this weekend for a pivotal conference matchup.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Enrique Bradfield Jr. is a perfect 41-for-41 on stolen base attempts this season (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst

This weekend, the entire SEC will be watching as No. 21 Vanderbilt (34-16, 14-13) will host LSU (34-18, 14-13) for the final series of the regular season. The outcome of the series will be influential in determining the final conference standings and, consequently, the seeding of the upcoming SEC tournament. Currently, Vanderbilt, LSU and Georgia are all tied for the No. 5 seed, sitting only 1.5 games back from No. 19 Auburn.

The Commodores have mustered some positive momentum as they close out an up-and-down season, winning six of their last eight games, including a pivotal series win over No. 4 Arkansas. In their most recent outing, the VandyBoys defeated Middle Tennessee 7-2 behind an outstanding all-around performance from outfielder Spencer Jones, who drove in two runs and stole home for another run. With that win, Vanderbilt wrapped up an excellent non-conference record of 21-3, helping offset an underwhelming 14-13 record in SEC play. 

LSU heads into their final series on a slightly different trajectory but with equally lofty expectations. The Tigers were swept by Ole Miss on the road last weekend but won their previous two SEC series against Alabama and No. 14 Georgia. After thrashing Northwestern State 19-7 in a midweek matchup, LSU has dispelled any notion that their squad has run out of gas at the finish line.

In the upcoming series, Vanderbilt will need to combat LSU’s balanced offense and formidable pitching. The Tigers rank near the top of the SEC in several team offensive categories, including slugging percentage (No. 2–.517), on-base percentage (No. 2–.405), RBIs (No. 2–392) and home runs (No. 3–95). Third baseman Jacob Berry has been a crucial source of offense for the Tigers, combining excellent consistency at the plate (.378 batting average) with serious power (15 home runs). Other offensive threats that the Commodores need to watch out for are infielder Cade Doughty, SEC doubles leader, and outfielder Dylan Crews, who finished top-5 in the SEC in five offensive categories. 

To limit LSU’s opportunities at the plate, the Commodores will send the same three pitchers to start on the mound as they did against Arkansas last week. Freshman Devin Futrell (8-1, 2.52) is set to start on Thursday, followed by sophomore Christian Little (1-1, 2.96) on Friday and junior Chris McElvain (5-4, 3.93) to close things out on Saturday. This trio played a pivotal role in hampering Arkansas’s offense and appear firmly entrenched in the rotation. However, head coach Tim Corbin hinted that several other players will have an opportunity to earn playing time in the postseason.

“Every series is an open opportunity for someone to pitch again or maybe for the first time,” Corbin said. “This time of year, you typically find someone who hasn’t helped you yet that’s going to. That’s very exciting.”

LSU also has a deep bullpen. The Tigers finished No. 4 in the SEC in team ERA (3.97) and opponent batting average (.232). Bullpen stalwarts Ty Floyd and Blake Money are two LSU pitchers to look out for, both having propelled the Tigers to several key victories throughout the season. 

This season-ending series will be especially meaningful for seniors Dominic Keegan and Tate Kolwyck, who may be playing at Hawkins Field for the last time. Keegan has been on an absolute tear this season and is No. 2 in the SEC in batting average (.385). Kolwyck’s batting average is lower, but his slugging percentage (.497) and RBIs (31) better reflect the impact he has made at the plate this season for the VandyBoys. Both student-athletes are invaluable to the Commodores as leaders and teammates. 

A series win against LSU will solidify Vanderbilt as an upper mid-seed in the SEC tournament. While the team is preeminently focused on winning the upcoming series, it is impossible to ignore its potential significance in shaping the quickly-arriving postseason.  Outlasting LSU will put Vanderbilt in the best possible position to succeed in the SEC tournament and beyond.

The series will begin on Thursday, May 19 at 7 p.m. CDT at Hawkins Field.