It wasn’t realistic for LSU to maintain the offensive pace it roared out of the chute with to start the 2012 season.
And it’s also likely a stretch for the Tigers to expect to get the kind of pitching they’ve gotten so far, regardless of what the bats manage to do on a daily basis.
After three games, though, it sure is hard to argue that LSU won’t be able to go toe-to-toe with any pitching staff it faces.
Kurt McCune took his turn on the mound Sunday, and although he approached things a little differently that his two fellow weekend aces, he was just as effective as the No. 8-ranked Tigers cruised eased past Air Force 4-0 at Alex Box Stadium to finish the season-opening weekend with three wins.
|Tyler Moore: Strikes big blow with a two-run single.|
Tyler Moore and Jackson Slaid supplied the big hits on a day when there weren’t many of them as LSU (3-0) got its first real test of the season.
The Tigers passed that test in large part because McCune stymied the Falcons.
Air Force (1-3) posed an immediate threat in the first when Adam Hill punched a leadoff single and catcher Garrett Custons rolled another hit through the left side of the infield with one out.
Without the kind of velocity of fellow weekend starters Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades, McCune went at the Falcons a lot differently. He mixed breaking pitches, using them to set up his fastball, kept hitters guessing and never got rattled.
With the runners in motion after Custons’ single, Alex Bast jumped on the first pitch and rolled out to shortstop Austin Nola. With two runners on the verge of putting Air Force on top right off the bat, McCune slammed the door on the threat by freezing Patrick Lobo on a called third strike.
|Kurt McCune: Snares first win with 6 solid innings.|
After that, McCune round his rhythm and retired 11 of the next 12 and 15 of the last 17 he faced, surrendering only one more hit.
The Falcons never got another runner into scoring position against McCune (1-0), taking hacks at off-speed pitches and lofting one routing popup after another – 10 of them in his six innings – into a fierce pitcher-friendly wind.
“After those first couple of hits, I had to make sure my fastball was spotting up a little better than I was and I had to get on top of counts better,” McCune said.
“I had to get in my groove get situated and get comfortable on the mound.”
Added LSU coach Paul Mainieri, “I sometimes wonder how he does it. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He just has a knack for getting people out.”
As relaxed as McCune was, the Tigers’ hitters took a while to find their comfort zone against Falcons starter Michael Ceci, a soft-throwing left-hander.
For three innings, all LSU managed was Slaid’s line-drive single to left field with two outs in the second and Jared Foster’s grounder up the middle with two outs in the third.
Mason Katz finally produced a leadoff runner when he slapped a base hit to left field to begin the fourth. Slaid followed with his second hit, going the other way for a solid single. On JaCoby Jones’ fly ball to center, Katz stumbled as he went back to second base, but got up and reached third when the throw was off-target.
That was just the start of Katz’s base-running adventure.
Nola tapped back to Ceci, a tailor-made double-play ball. But Katz broke for the plate and Ceci threw home instead of trying for the twin killing. After several throws in a prolonged rundown, Katz dove back into third base safely to load the bases.
“If he doesn’t break, it’s a pitcher-to-shortstop-to-first double play and the inning is over,” Mainieri said. “We were fortunate with his hustle that he was able to avoid the tag in the rundown.”
Added Katz, “I got to stay in as long as I could and they made one little mistake and didn’t throw it and I was safe.”
That mistake came back to haunt Air Force when Moore stepped in with the bases full and rammed Ceci’s second pitch into left-center field to score Katz and Slaid for the first runs of the day and send Nola around to third base.
“I just stayed short to the ball and hit it hard somewhere and it just found a hole,” said Moore, who was robbed of a hit in the third inning.
Said Mainieri, “That’s the kind of hitter Tyler Moore is. He has very good balance at the plate and he uses the whole field.”
When Moore took off for second on the first pitch to Casey Yocom, Custons’ throw skipped into center field and Nola scored for a 3-0 advantage.
That inning was all McCune and the Tigers’ bullpen needed.
The Falcons managed only one hit in their ensuing 16 at-bats after they fell behind. Once McCune exited, freshman Aaron Nola came on and was almost flawless.
Nola’s first 12 pitches were strikes (17 of 19 in all) and he got a huge assist when Moore made a spectacular diving stab on a foul popup behind the plate.
The only hitter who saw balls out of the strike zone was Hill, who flew out weakly to left field to end the eighth – the end of Nola’s second perfect frame.
LSU scratched out another run in the bottom of the eighth when Raph Rhymes started the at-bat with a single, moved to second on a wild pitch and sprinted home when Slaid dumped his third hit of the day into left field.
Slaid batted .500 in the series (4-for-8) and drove in four runs.
“It’s just second-nature to me to swing the bat and make something happen,” Slaid said. “Those situations are why you’re there – to drive in runs and everybody embraces the challenge.”
The Falcons finally made some noise against Nick Rumbelow in the ninth inning when the LSU defense showed chinks in its armor.
After 26 errorless innings, Blair Roberts reached to start the ninth when Austin Nola ranged far to his left and gobbled up a ball headed toward center field, but threw off-target to first base.
Rumbelow got two outs, but Lobo kept the inning alive with a single and Taylor Ausbun reached when a third strike evaded Moore and he threw errantly to first to load the bases.
That brought pinch-hitter David Thomas to the plate as the potential tying run, and he took a hack at the first pitch he saw and flew out to Rhymes in right field.
LSU notched a second straight shutout for the first time since April 2 and 4, 2008 when the Tigers blanked Centenary and Alabama in consecutive games.
In three games, LSU allowed 15 hits and two runs in 27 innings with 34 strikeouts and only five walks. The bullpen logged 10 innings and didn’t give up a run.
The Tigers are back in action Wednesday when McNeese State comes to Baton Rouge for a 3 p.m. game at the Box.