The LSU Tigers are two victories away from a spot in the College World Series. Standing in their way are the No. 3 seed Tennessee Volunteers.
LSU (38-23) faces Tennessee (48-16) in a best-of-3 Super Regional starting Saturday at 6 p.m. at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. Game 1 will be broadcast on ESPN2.
The Vols swept the Tigers in a three-game series March 26-28 in Knoxville, but all three were close. Tennessee won the first game 3-1, the second 9-8 in 11 innings and the third 3-2 in eight (scheduled for 7).
LSU advanced to the Super Regional round by winning the Eugene, Ore., Regional. After losing their first game, the Tigers won four straight elimination games, including two in a row over host and No. 14 seed Oregon.
Tennessee hosted and won its regional, going 3-0.
Senior right-hander Ma’Khail Hilliard (6-0, 4.56 ERA) will start Saturday’s opener. He pitched the first inning of LSU’s decisive 9-8 victory over Oregon on Monday night.
Junior right-hander Chad Dallas (10-1, 4.27 ERA) will start for Tennessee. He ranked No. 4 in the SEC in wins and No. 9 in strikeouts with 106 in 90 2/3 innings.
LSU is appearing in its 15th Super Regional. The Tigers have advanced eight times.
LSU has won five Super Regionals under head coach Paul Mainieri, who announced his retirement on May 28 effective at the end of the season.
Tennessee is hosting a Super Regional for the first time and playing in only its third.
A lot of the pre-Super Regional talk has centered around Mainieri’s comments about Tennessee fans after the March series.
At those games, capacity was limited to 25 percent because of COVID-19 restrictions and the crowd was just over a thousand at each game. Full capacity will be allowed this weekend.
Because of the limited capacity, the fans’ comments could easily be heard by players and coaches.
“They were nasty fans. Nasty. Nasty,” Mainieri said in an interview on Baton Rouge radio station 104.5 FM. “They were into (freshman first baseman) Tre’ Morgan’s head. They were on him from the moment he walked on that field.”
But Mainieri and his players have downplayed the comments this week.
“That was blown out of proportion,” Mainieri said in his Wednesday press conference. “Tennessee fans are no different from anywhere else in the SEC.”
He again said he thought it was blown out of proportion at his press conference Friday in Knoxville.
“I didn’t mean in any way to criticize the people of Tennessee,” he said. “I love the people of Tennessee. I stuck my foot in my mouth and made some comments that I really didn’t think about before I said it. I didn’t mean to criticize anybody. They’re wonderful people.”
Despite the sweep, Mainieri said the series had some positive aspects.
“I thought we competed really hard there,” he said. “I thought we were growing up right before my eyes in Tennessee. Tennessee’s got a really good ball club, an outstanding team.
“And that’s not an easy place to play. The ballpark is a home run hitter’s paradise. But they have a tremendous pitching staff. That’s the thing. That’s what separates Tennessee. They’ve got home run hitters. They’ve hit 92 home runs. But the thing that separates them from a lot of teams in our league is their pitching is really good. And their ballpark is small for both teams yet their pitching staff has an earned run average in the low threes.”
Tennessee is second in the SEC in team ERA with a 3.42, just shy of Vanderbilt’s 3.41. Sean Hunley (7-4) leads the Vols’ staff with a 3.04 ERA.
Senior infielder Liam Spence is Tennessee’s top hitter with a .346 average, ranking ninth in the SEC. Sophomore outfielder Drew Gilbert is the Vols’ RBI leader with 60, which ranks fourth in the conference.
Junior first baseman Luc Lipcius leads the team in home runs with 15.
Freshman outfielder Dylan Crews and Morgan are tied for fourth in the SEC with .361 averages. Junior Gavin Dugas, the MVP of the Eugene Regional, is the conference leader in RBIs with 66. He is also tied for third in home runs with 19.