Everything on the line as Georgia baseball hosts No. 5 LSU

Everything will be on the line for the Georgia Bulldogs as they play host to No. 5 LSU at Foley Field Thursday-Saturday this weekend. (Photo by Tony Walsh, UGA Athletics)

Credit: UGA (Tony Walsh)

Credit: UGA (Tony Walsh)

Everything will be on the line for the Georgia Bulldogs as they play host to No. 5 LSU at Foley Field Thursday-Saturday this weekend. (Photo by Tony Walsh, UGA Athletics)

ATHENS — For Georgia baseball, it all comes down to what happens this weekend.

The Bulldogs play host to No. 5-ranked LSU at Foley Field in the final SEC series of the season. The first of the three games will be played Thursday night, weather permitting.

Losing two or more could leave Georgia in a very precarious situation regarding the postseason. First, the Bulldogs (28-24, 10-17 SEC) must be sure they qualify for the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama. They should, but thanks to the events of the past couple of weeks, nothing is guaranteed.

Georgia is tied with Missouri for last place in the SEC East and 11th overall. The Tigers (30-20, 10-17) hold the tiebreaker thanks to their sweep of the Bulldogs in Columbia this past weekend. But the ultimate goal remains an NCAA Tournament bid and for that Georgia continues to hold out hope.

“We’ve just got to win,” coach Scott Stricklin told reporters this week. “It’s no secret, we’ve got to at least win this series and then we’ve got to do some work in Hoover. That’s the reality of it.”

Fortunately for Georgia, the bottom two teams in the Western Division appear most likely to be shut out of the SEC Tournament, which takes only the top 12 teams. Defending national champion Ole Miss (26-25, 6-21) mathematically is assured of staying at home. But watch out for Mississippi State (26-24, 8-19) – the Maroon Dogs just swept the same LSU team that Georgia is playing this weekend.

Missouri is at Auburn while Mississippi State plays host to Texas A&M this weekend. The Bulldogs will be rooting hard for the Aggies and Auburn.

Meanwhile, LSU (40-12, 17-9) arrives in Athens quite motivated itself, but for very different reasons. The Tigers still have a shot at winning the SEC regular-season championship. Arkansas (38-13, 19-8), Florida (40-12, 18-9) and Vanderbilt (35-16, 17-10) are also in that conversation.

LSU remains in that position despite getting swept by Mississippi State last weekend. The wonder is how that could ever happen considering the talent on the Tigers’ roster. On Thursday night, they will throw out the nation’s top pitcher and position player.

Paul Skenes, a 6-foot-6 junior right-hander, features a high-90s fastball that he pairs with a mid-80s slider. He’s 10-1 with a 1.69 ERA, 152 strikeouts and 14 walks. Skenes projects as the No. 2 player for next month’s MLB draft. The top projected player is LSU center fielder Dylan Crews, who is hitting .438 with 13 homers and 55 RBIs.

Georgia will counter with a makeshift starting rotation. Freshman left-hander Jared Evans (2-0, 4.67) will be get his first SEC start Thursday. The Bulldogs still are without ace Jaden Woods, who is missing fifth SEC start because of biceps tendinitis. Fellow left-handers Charlie Goldstein (3-1, 4.50) and Liam Sullivan (4-2, 5.83), who also are coming off recent injuries, are set to start the other two games.

Starting pitching hasn’t really been the issue for the Bulldogs, though. Their problem has been closing out games. That was starkly evident again last weekend when Georgia blew ninth-inning leads to lose the final two games against Missouri.

The Bulldogs have blown ninth-inning leads in four SEC contests this season. They’ve seen many other margins fritter away all season after starters leave games.

“It’s just tough to not be able to hold onto leads late,” Stricklin said. “Never seen that many (in a season). You’ve got to finish games. The toughest outs to get are the last three, and we’ve had a tough time getting them.”

The good news is Georgia has played very well at home. The Bulldogs have won their past three SEC series at Foley Field, all against ranked teams in Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. They included a sweep of the conference-leading Razorbacks.

“Our kids responded,” Stricklin said. “We’re facing another really good team, which is nothing new in this league. We’re going to have to play our best baseball. We’ve played a lot better here at Foley. Hopefully we can get that home-field advantage and win a series.”