Q: What, to you, was the most eventful part of the journey to the CWS Final?
PodKatt of ATVS: Bringing the long ball back to Omaha has been fun to watch, but there can be no story bigger for LSU in this CWS than the emergence of freshmen Zach Hess and Caleb Gilbert. Hess had mainly been middle relief all season, but he’s completely taken over the closer’s role here late in the post season. His stuff is so nasty, I’m beginning to wonder how the hell he ended up in college. Gilbert coming along at the exact moment LSU needed him when Eric Walker went down with injury has not only saved LSU’s shot at the finals, but saved the rest of the LSU bullpen for the patchwork game that will have to be played on Monday. If Gilbert is only half as good as he was on Saturday, LSU goes deeper into it’s pen and the arms available for Monday would have been severely limited. Gilbert’s efforts may have just saved LSU’s Championship.
AH: It’s Florida coming up with close, nervy wins time and again. This isn’t the best Florida team to come to Omaha -- it may be the third-best team to do so this decade -- but it is possibly the least nervous one, freed from the freight of expectations that came with the ultra-talented 2012 and 2015 bunches and seemingly better for it. Of course, it has also helped that this team still has top-line starters like Alex Faedo who make shutting down opposing offenses possible. Faedo’s wins may be the single most “eventful” moments of this run, but the Gators that have taken the bump in this postseason have almost all been great, and their brilliance has helped Florida keep up a season-long penchant for coming through in close games.
Q: Who will be the key players to watch for your team?
AH: Tempting as it is to say Florida’s pitchers are its key players, that feels a bit obvious for me: If Brady Singer and whichever of Jackson Kowar and the rest of the Florida rotation can’t be great or close in the first two games of this series, there probably won’t be a third game, and LSU will probably win a national title. But if those guys aren’t great, Florida will almost certainly have to compensate with power from its lineup, and there’s no better candidate to do that than JJ Schwarz, who has hit timely homers throughout his career. Mike Rivera and Nelson Maldonado, among others, could muscle up and slug in this series, but seemingly every veteran position player on Florida’s roster is hurt or ailing -- except Schwarz, who could shut up Florida fans that have harped on his lack of progress since a scintillating freshman campaign with a well-placed dinger that leads to a trophy.
PK: Kramer Robertson’s swing must have taken a bus to get to Omaha, but it looks like it’s finally back with the team. If the rest of the top of LSU’s lineup can join Robertson in getting their swing back, LSU will be very dangerous. Also, I think Michael Papierski got tired of getting walked and is just hammering the ball right now. If the winds don’t change, LSU is going to try to “Gorilla Ball” their way to a championship. For the first time since moving to that miserable park, I think that might actually work.
Q: What will be the biggest factor in your team’s chances to win it all?
PK: The Aces being Aces. I think LSU’s offense will be fine. After a week at TDA, the lineup knows what works and what doesn’t. Game one has me worried, but if Poché and Lange are on their game, I’d take them over any team in the country. I’m also a little concerned about Hess’s sudden increase in workload and a sudden onset of Freshman jitters, but he seems fine so far.
AH: Florida’s offense solving LSU’s pitching. The Gators have become better-acquainted with LSU aces Alex Lange and Jared Poché than most teams, and have acquitted themselves fairly nicely in those matchups: Neither Lange nor Poché has a win against Florida, despite seven combined starts for the two (Lange has four, Poché three) against the Gators. And while Florida has never hit Lange particularly well, Poché has conceded four runs to Florida in two outings of five or fewer innings in his career, the most recent coming in March. LSU’s rotation setting up Lange as a Game 3 possibility rather than a Game 2 likelihood can’t threaten Florida as much as the reverse would, and Florida has done work against Tigers starters other than those two in recent years, which bodes poorly for spot starter Russell Reynolds, whose win over the Gators in May of 2016 still came after yielding two runs in two innings.
Q: How do you see the series shaking out?
PK: Now I start to worry. There's an old, probably apocryphal, quote from Skip Bertman about playing in Omaha “Play the game in front of you. Worry about tomorrow’s game tomorrow.” Coach Mainieri certainly has good reasons for letting Poché and Lange rest, most importantly being their future professional careers. But for all the much deserved good will Mainieri is finally experiencing from the fan base, If LSU leaves Omaha without using Lange again, he’ll never hear the end of it.
Monday’s patchwork approach has me worried. And with Poché, there’s always the risk that you get a bad start from him out of the blue. In my eyes, either the series goes a full 3 games and LSU wins, or it’s a 2-0 sweep for UF.
AH: I think I agree with Pod: Either Florida goes up and closes out a sweep, or LSU wins this series. I don’t believe Kevin O’Sullivan will endanger Faedo in a Game 3 -- maybe he’d throw a couple of innings, at most -- but I also don’t think Florida can win this series by beating Poché and Lange, given how anemic the Gators’ offense has been in Omaha. Brady Singer taking advantage of his opportunity and pitching like the guy who allowed one run to LSU in a complete game in Gainesville earlier this year in Game 1 is vital for the Gators, because they will likely not have the pitching advantage in Game 2 or 3.
Forced to pick, I think LSU wins this one in three games. But I also don’t feel great about virtually any games or series this Florida team plays -- and still, somehow, these Gators win.