Tigers face Gamecocks in crucial series

This is where LSU baseball is supposed to be in mid-May.

When the No. 9 Tigers (40-13, 17-10) take the field tonight against No. 2 South Carolina, they'll have a shot at all the honors LSU is accustomed to competing for. The team has already secured at least a share of the SEC West title, with one more win clinching it outright. LSU has already guaranteed itself the No. 2 seed in next week's SEC tournament.

But if the Tigers get the right breaks this weekend -- which would involve out-dueling the Gamecocks (38-13, 17-9) and hoping for losses from Kentucky -- the outright conference championship is still a possibility.

Not to mention, there's the looming matter of deciding which SEC squads earn national seeds, and therefore travel the road to the College World Series from their home fields.

"This is what it's all about," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "The way (the players) can look at this weekend, they can choose that it's so big that they get nervous about it, or they can just enjoy it. I want them to have fun and just let it rip."

The thought of having fun is a stark contrast to the Tigers' nightmarish finish to 2011. As customary as all of this is for one of the nation's most decorated programs, it's worth noting that it's only been a year since LSU sweated through May, failed to qualify for the SEC tournament and missed the postseason for just the third time since 1989.

Instead, the Tigers have a chance to down the two-time defending national champions, win their seventh of 10 conference series and win a league that boasts six top 25 teams.

"We've got a confident mindset -- we've got a good team. South Carolina has a good team. We're going to have to go out and play our best baseball," said senior shortstop Austin Nola. "You've got two teams that have three national championsahips between them in the last three years, so there is a lot of history. It's going tobe a blast out there."

It wouldn't be fair to say the Tigers' success this time around has been surprising, but it is certainly interesting. LSU lost its way last spring in part because of an offense that floundered at times, mainly because departed star Mikie Mahtook was the only reliable threat.

With three games to play in the 2012 regular season, however, the Tigers are actually batting worse than they did in 2011 -- a team average of .296 compared to .303. The team has 44 fewer runs, 27 fewer RBI and 29 fewer hits than it did last spring.

And yet, largely thanks to a sterling pitching staff, LSU has reversed last year's position in the conference standings, despite playing the same small ball style. Mainieri has stressed that the squad's failure to make last year's postseason could easily be chalked up to bad bounces, and this season seems to back that up. In conference play this year, LSU is 11-4 in one-run games after going a heartbreaking 2-7 in those situations last year.

The Tigers' newfound knack for gut check wins will be undoubtedly be put to the test by the Gamecocks. After losing three of the top five hitters from the 2011 championship team, South Carolina is relying on its 3.18 team ERA to offset a subpar .275 team batting average.

The series opener promises to put that pitching prowess on display. Both the Tigers and Gamecocks will throw their aces to start, with LSU's Kevin Gausman (8-1, 2.95 ERA) starting opposite USC's Michael Roth (5-0, 2.65 ERA). Gausman's opposing batting average of a mere .235 is impressive until you see that Roth is holding opponents to .194.

Conversely, Roth's 66 strikeouts in 86.2 innings of work is a strong stat until it's compared with Gausman's 112 K's in just 91.2 innings pitched.

"If you love baseball, you love to see the best players going after each other," Mainieri said. "They're kind of a contridiction in style. Gausman is more of the prototypical professional prospect, and Roth is the consumate college pitcher that has maximized his ability."

Whatever happens when the pair collide, LSU at least has the knowledge that it's season will continue another two weeks -- a luxury it wasn't afforded last May. But the right results against the Gamecocks could cap off a championship effort that seemed like a pipe dream just a year ago.