Quick start for State, bad ending for LSU

After falling into a five-run hole int he first inning, the Tigers fall to the Bulldogs and are unable to finish off the SEC sweep.

Three days a weekend, 10 times a season, SEC teams take the diamond for a chance to establish superiority.

For two of those three days on the opening week of league play, 10th-ranked LSU scratched and clawed and found a way to edge No. 20 Mississippi State, winning both games by a run to win the series.

With a chance to sweep the Bulldogs for the first time since 2008 and just the second time since 1992, the Tigers came out Sunday at Alex Box Stadium and played like a team without motivation.

The outcome was predictable and unsavory as State rode a quick start and Kendall Graveman's complete-game performance to a 7-1 triumph.

LSU (16-4, 2-1 SEC) collected 10 hits against the sinker-ball throwing Graveman, but rolled into three inning-ending double plays and flew into another to squash any chance of a comeback.

Of the 27 outs Graveman recorded, 19 were on the ground and 16 on either first- or second-pitch swings.

Besides looking overmatched at times offensively, the Tigers also looked unfocused at times – when catcher Ty Ross rolled the ball back toward the mound after a strikeout for the second out of the State first and later when center fielder Chris Sciambra snared a fly ball for the second out and started trotting in thinking the inning was over.

LSU's Raph Rhymes: 4-for-4 Sunday to lift his average to .474.

"This shows the young guys how important that third game is on these SEC weekends," said LSU right fielder Raph Rhymes, who was 4-for-4 but also botched a fly ball that led to a Bulldog run. "We have to come out and play just as hard in the third game as the first two."

Things got off to a rough beginning Sunday because the Bulldogs (15-7, 1-2) unleashed some aggression and frustration against LSU freshman Aaron Nola in the first inning.

Nola's effectiveness as a strike-thrower hurt him as the Bulldogs pounced quickly when leadoff man Adam Frazier rifled the first pitch of the game into right-center field for a double. Nola got an 0-and-2 count on Tyler Fullerton but then plunked him, and that propped the floodgates open.

Trey Porter singled in a run, Hunter Renfroe zapped a double down the third-base line, Mitch Slauter plated a run with a fly ball and Demarcus Henderson pumped another double to left-center to score Renfroe.

Nola caught Phillip Case looking at a third strike, but Wes Rea produced the Bulldogs' fifth hit and fourth double of the frame for a 5-0 cushion.

"They got me in the first pretty good," said Nola, who had allowed four runs in 20 innings prior to Sunday. "All the things that could go wrong went wrong. I left the ball up and missed some spots and they didn't miss."

Added Bulldogs' coach John Cohen, "We knew (Nola) was a strike-thrower from watching film. You can't get behind the count because he's not going to give you anything. We had that one good inning against him, and thanks goodness that was enough."

Enough because Nola zoned in after the rocky start and didn't give up much more. State collected only two more hits and an unearned run in his last five innings. Rea socked a solo home run off Kurt McCune in the eighth inning for the Bulldogs' only other tally.

"I got in a groove and kept the ball down after the first," Nola said after absorbing his first college loss. "I had to compete harder. If you don't compete in the SEC and give up five runs, it's going to get worse."

Added Tigers coach Paul Mainieri, "I can't say enough about the way Aaron Nola refused to give up and he continued to compete at a high level after that tough first inning. He demonstrated to me why he's going to be a tremendous pitcher for us with the poise he showed after the rough start."

Problem was, Graveman never ran into similar trouble.

The Tigers got at least one hit in seven innings and got their leadoff man on five times. But every time Graveman started to look the slightest bit wobbly, he got a ground ball or two or three to extinguish the threat.

Besides Rhymes, the first five hitters in LSU's batting order got the ball out of the infield only three times – Sciambra's fly ball to center in the fifth inning, JaCoby Jones with a single in the sixth inning and Ty Ross with a base hit in the eighth. Mason Katz typified the Tigers' frustration with four groundouts, including a sharply hit comebacker that Graveman gobbled up to trigger a 1-6-3 double play in the eighth.

"He was mixing his pitches real well," Rhymes said after raising his batting average to .474. "He had control of his changeup and his curve ball and he kept his fastball low in the zone.

"It was hard to get a rhythm. We couldn't string any hits together and that made it tough. We go hits here or there but couldn't take advantage of them."

Graveman knew he was better off coming at the Tigers with first-pitch hittable offerings.

"I had a good two-seam working and was able to get underneath the barrel all day," Graveman said. "I could tell they were first-pitch aggressive, so I kept the ball down in the zone and it worked for us."

LSU's lone run came in the sixth inning when Jones smacked a leadoff single, moved to second on Katz's roller to shortstop, went to third on Rhymes' base hit to right and scooted home on Ross' chopped to third base.

That was an inning after Grant Dozar drew a one-out walk and Alex Edward tagged a base hit through the middle that bounded past the State second baseman and shortstop at the second-base bag. Sciambra sent a fly ball to shallow center and Dozar inexplicably tried to score and was gunned down by several feet to end the threat.

It's unlikely that run would've made much of a dent in Graveman's resolve.

Pitching with the early lead, he challenged the Tigers from the start and never let them get comfortable.

"Once you get the game rolling and you're ahead by five runs, it was hard for them to get anything rolling," he said. "Getting those runs early was big for us."

Despite Sunday's loss, LSU is off to a stronger SEC start than last season when it tumbled out of the gates 1-5. That and Nola's recovery from the first are building blocks the Tigers will take moving forward this week with a home game against Southern on Wednesday before they embark on their first league road trip to Auburn.

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