Hard to figure what was more uncharacteristic Friday night when LSU and Arkansas squared off in a battle of ranked teams at Alex Box Stadium.
It wasn’t hard to deduce which out-of-the-ordinary happening was easier to live with for the Tigers, though.
No. 12-ranked LSU blazed to a 10-6 triumph, riding a wave of 17 hits and three home runs to the victory in an opener when Tigers’ ace Kevin Gausman had to navigate a rocky first three innings.
|Kevin Gausman: Endures rough three innings before finding a grrove on the way to his 5th victory|
The rarity of an offensive explosion – the run and hit totals were LSU’s most this season – offset what was shaping up as the worst start of Gausman’s season.
No complaints from anybody involved in the Tigers’ dugout, though. Especially after Gausman turned things around and stymied the third-ranked Razorbacks.
“Gausman is just going out there and compete every time he goes to the mound,” said senior third baseman Tyler Hanover, who popped his first home run in 89 games. “He’s just giving the team a chance to win. He might not always have his best stuff, but he’s going to find a way to keep us in the game. We wanted to do whatever we could to help him out when we got behind.”
That happened in the third inning when Arkansas (22-4, 5-2 SEC) erased a 2-0 deficit with five two-out runs against Gausman.
Gausman began the third in a rhythm, striking out Jacob Morris and getting leadoff man Tim Carver to chase a low fastball for strike three. But that pitch got away from catcher Ty Ross and Carver reached safely. Bo Bigham dropped a base hit into left field before Gausman got the second out when Dominic Ficociello skied out to deep center field.
After a long battle, cleanup hitter Matt Reynolds rifled a double down the left-field line to score both runners and knot the score 2-2. Sam Bates walked before Derrick Bleeker pumped a sinking line drive to right field that Mason Katz took a bad angle on, which allowed the ball to scoot to the fence for a two-run triple and a 4-2 Arkansas lead.
Bleeker dashed home on a wild pitch for a three-run cushion that loomed large with DJ Baxendale on the mound for the Hogs against a Tigers’ lineup that had struggled in its first six SEC games.
Instead, the LSU bats came alive, bailed Gausman out and then set him up for his 5th victory.
|Mason Katz: 2-out RBI 1B in the 4th gives LSU the lead for good|
Katz laced a leadoff single in the Tigers’ third inning and Raph Rhymes crushed an 0-and-1 Baxendale pitch out of the ballpark to left field, his first homer of the season.
In his first at-bat, Rhymes struck out to leave JaCoby Jones stranded at third base. As he reached home plate after his homer pulled LSU (20-6, 4-3) within 5-4, Rhymes pumped his first and was as demonstrative as he’s been all season.
“I hate striking out more than anything,” said Rhymes, the SEC’s leading hitter at .480. “I felt like it was a pretty big at-bat. You’ve got to get off to a good start and with a guy at third striking out, I didn’t like that.
“Sometimes the team needs some energy to feed off of. The home run was something different for me, and it got me fired up and that got the team fired up.”
Rhymes erased that taste and Ty Ross followed in his footsteps when he jacked a solo bomb to left field to even the score, 5-5.
Back to square one, Gausman found his groove.
Including the last out of the third when he struck out Jimmy Bosco, Gausman set down 11 of the final 12 hitters he faced – the exception was a throwing error on shortstop Austin Nola. During that stretch he fanned seven on the way to a career-high 12 punchouts.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said the Tigers’ explosion energized Gausman.
“He went out there and you could tell he was very confident after his team got him some runs,” Mainieri said.
The nightmarish third inning certainly seemed to help Gausman hone in.
“That third inning that was the worst inning I’ve ever had,” Gausman said. “Everything that could possibly go wrong did.
“I knew after the third inning that I was going to hold them. I was confident in my stuff. And when you see the ball leaving the park, that’s pretty exciting.”
Oddly enough, battling his control in the first three innings – Gausman went to a three-ball count on five of the first 13 Hog hitters – forced him to blend in more of his repertoire.
“This was first night where all my stuff was coming together,” Gausman said.
“We try to focus on getting through the lineup and a half with just two pitches. We figured that our fastball and changeup was going to be enough. In the third inning, I had to start mixing in all four pitches and that was something that was huge for me the rest of the game.”
|Tyler Hanover: First home run since his sophomore season was one of three for the Tigers.|
Equally as huge was the run LSU scratched out in the fourth inning to give Gausman a lead and then a four-run 5th inning when Hanover’s bomb and four more two-out hits supplied some unfamiliar breathing room.
Arkansas reliever Cade Lynch extinguished LSU’s rally in the third by getting the last two outs and quickly got the first two outs of the fourth as well. But Grant Dozar ripped a double on the first pitch he saw from the Razorbacks’ southpaw and Katz shanked a single into left field that Dozar read perfectly and raced around for a 6-5 lead.
“It was real big for us to take the lead as quickly as possible,” Katz said.
“We came right back and tied it up and that was great, but to take the lead and give Gausman some confidence, that was big. After that, he went out and shut them down. He was unbelievable.”
Hanover’s bomb to open the fifth inning gave the Tigers three homers in a game for the first time since May 21, 2010, and boosted the lead to 7-5. Lynch again got two outs before Jones punched a single through the right side and Dozar stroked another hit through the middle.
Colby Suggs came on for Arkansas and hit Katz with a 3-and-1 pitch to load the bases for Rhymes, who didn’t disappoint when he roped a two-run single to left field for a four-RBI game. Nola tacked on one more run when he socked a single over shortstop to plate Katz for the Tigers’ sixth two-out run of the night.
Hanover credited Rhymes’ homer for popping the cork for an LSU offense that had not scored more than four runs in an SEC game this season until Friday.
“As soon as he hit that home run, we all relaxed and started having quality at-bats,” he said.
Whatever the trigger, Katz hopes it carries over Saturday when the Tigers and Razorbacks meet in game two at 7 p.m.
“Hopefully it stays,” he said with a smile. “I like it.”