After scoring 27 combined runs in its first nine SEC games, LSU baseball matched that with 27 runs in three games in its series at Kentucky. LSU totaled 37 hits in the three-game series, just short of the 47 combined hits in its first nine conference games.
The offensive outburst that led LSU to its first series win over a conference foe is due, in part, to Cade Beloso and Jordan Thompson, two batters near the bottom of the Tiger batting order who have stepped up to provide LSU with a more well-rounded lineup.
“It feels good to get some hits and produce for the team,” Beloso said after Friday’s win. “We win, I’m happy. That’s all that matters.”
The story behind Beloso's and Thompson’s increase in offensive production in recent weeks is a similar one. For both players, Head Coach Paul Mainieri and his staff noticed some troubling faults to each of their games.
Beloso’s early season struggles were easy to see. In 20 games through the end of non-conference play and after LSU’s first SEC weekend, a 2-1 series loss to Mississippi State, Beloso hit just one home run and 15 hits in 67 at-bats, good for a .224 average. He slowly slid down the batting order and started to get benched occasionally for younger bats.
“This game plays with your mind,” Mainieri said. “When you’re struggling, you wonder sometimes if you'll ever get another hit. Your confidence starts to drain. You start thinking you have to do something different.”
That’s when Mainieri took notice of problems with Beloso’s swing. On the Monday following the Mississippi State series, the two met to discuss Beloso’s struggles and what Mainieri thought might be able to help. Later that day, Mainieri said his junior designated hitter had one of the best batting practice sessions he’s ever seen.
“Not only was he struggling, but his swing was changing,” Mainieri said. “He wasn’t showing the same bat speed. I thought mechanically he started to change some of the things that he was doing. Eddie Smith and I did some video analysis with Cade and changed a few things back to what we thought he needed to do.”
Although the mechanical changes didn’t lead to instant success, Mainieri credits Beloso for sticking with the changes they worked on.
“Even though the hits weren’t coming, I felt he was on the verge of breaking out of it,” Mainieri said. “And all of a sudden, he did.”
In 10 at-bats against Kentucky, Beloso had five hits and brought in seven runs. He raised his season batting average to .240, up from the .224 average he sported before that Monday session with Mainieri and Smith last month.
“He’s been on the verge of turning it around, and boy, what a difference it made for our team,” Mainieri said. “He got some big hits and drove in some critical runs.”
In Thompson’s case, an adjustment in his swing wasn’t needed, rather an adjustment to his approach. Too often for his liking, Mainieri noticed opposing team’s infielders would shift heavily to the left side, sometimes employing three infielders to the left side of second base.
“They’ll put their shortstop way over in the six hole almost shaking hands with the third baseman,” Mainieri said. “By nature, he’s got a little bit of a pull swing. Eddie’s worked a lot with him on trying to hit the ball to the opposite field. Other teams have looked at his spray charts and they’re playing him as a dead-pull hitter.
He’s probably hit a half dozen balls really hard that would typically be in the hole between short and third, but they got their shortstop playing so far over there that they turn into easy outs.”
Similar to Beloso, the work Thompson put in came to fruition in the Kentucky series. The freshman shortstop had eight hits and two RBIs in 12 at-bats over the three games. He was named the SEC’s Co-Freshman of the Week on Monday.
The increased efforts to spray the ball to the opposite field paid off, too. On Sunday, Thompson hit a one-run triple in the right-centerfield gap.
“The more he’s able to hit the ball to the opposite field,” Mainieri said, “the more success he’s going to have and the more unshiftable he’ll become, which will open up more holes for him on the left side. Those are some of the things Eddie Smith is working with him on.”
After just nine SEC games, LSU baseball is staring its worst start in conference play since 1969 right in the face.
Beloso and Thompson’s emergence has given Mainieri and LSU something it hasn’t had all season long: balance. For a large portion of the season, LSU has struggled to get production from anyone besides Dylan Crews, Tre’ Morgan, Gavin Dugas and Cade Doughty. Beloso and Thompson’s emergence, as well as the return of Giovanni DiGiacomo, should help to take some of the offensive load from the top of the order and give Mainieri a more complete one through nine.
“It made such a big difference for our team to get them hitting,” Mainieri said. “It gave us eight pretty good hitters in our lineup this weekend and what a difference it made for our team. You got good balance in your lineup and it showed.”