Two swings created most of the damage Friday night when third-ranked LSU tussled with Alabama in an SEC series opener at Alex Box Stadium.
Two catches by the Tigers’ emerging center fielder made sure the Crimson Tide never got a chance to chip away.
And now LSU has two days to finish erasing a memory from a trip to Tuscaloosa last season.
The Tigers blazed past Alabama 10-2 Friday, with Mason Katz’s three-run home run in the first inning and Austin Nola’s grand slam in the fourth inning giving them all the offense they needed to open the weekend with their most lopsided league win of the season.
LSU (28-7, 9-4 SEC) also got an RBI single from Raph Rhymes, returning to action after missing three games from a concussion, a clutch two-out hit by Arby Fields and Rhymes bases-load walk right before Nola’s slam.
|Arby Fields: Two key catches in CF helped keep Alabama in check|
Fields came up big in the field as well, charging up to make a catch on a sinking liner in the second and then tracking down a well-struck fly ball to the warning track with two runners on base to end the third inning.
The Tigers were quiet offensively after Nola’s blast, with only three more hits in the last four innings – reminiscent of last season when they thumped Alabama in the opener but didn’t score a run in the final 22 innings of a series loss.
And that sour memory wasn’t lost on anybody after LSU’s 11th win in the last 12 games.
“We can’t forget it,” said Katz, whose homer was his team-high 7th. “We want to use it and build on it and keep remembering it the whole weekend.”
Nola said Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri was quick to remind them of their two-game fizzle last year against the Tide (13-21, 4-9), and he insisted the LSU won’t get sidetracked by the impressive opening act of the weekend.
That’s fitting because the senior shortstop wasn’t distracted by two troublesome at-bats before he struck the game’s biggest blow.
|Mason Katz: Got the Tigers started on the right foot with a three-run bomb in the first inning.|
In the first inning, Nola popped out to first base when he took a hack at the first offering he got from Alabama starter Trey Pilkington. Two innings later, with Rhymes at first base after he dumped an RBI hit into left field to score Katz, Nola looped another harmless popup to the first baseman in foul territory.
By the fourth inning, Pilkington was gone after surrendering Fields’ clutch hit and then walking Katz to load the bases. Tide coach Mitch Gaspard lifted his starter and handed the ball to freshman Taylor Guilbeau from nearby Zachary, who promptly walked Rhymes to force in another run and pad LSU’s lead to 6-2.
After jumping ahead of Nola 0-and-2, Guilbeau threw a ball and then hung a changeup that Nola cranked into the bleachers for his first home run this season and second career grand slam.
“I was going up there and I knew he wanted to command the zone,” Nola said. “He walked Raph on five pitches, so I wanted to see if he could command the zone and he did. He threw the first two balls right over the plate and I said I’m going to have to battle. He threw a changeup and I got a good swing on it. I thought I got a little out in front of it but the old Alex Box wind helped it out.
“My first two at-bats were horrible, but it’s baseball and you have to put them behind you and have a short-term memory. I went up there with a clean new slate.”
By the time Nola circled the bases, the lead was 10-2 and Tigers’ pitcher Kevin Gausman had all the cushion he needed.
|Kevin Gausman: Shrugged off a rocky start to toss 8 strong innings and win his 6th game|
Though not razor-sharp in the early going when he permitted four hits and both runs in the first three frames, Gausman battled effectively. Fields bailed him when he dashed into the gap in left-center to track down a threatening fly ball off the bat of Ben Moore to end the third inning.
After that Gausman mowed down 15 of the final 18 batters he faced and allowed more than one base runner just once. He struck out five of the last seven batters he faced.
“I was trying to make my stuff a little too perfect,” Gausman said after upping his record to 6-1. “I was trying to hit a dime in the glove. I just have to trust my stuff. In the fifth inning, I settled in and found it.”
It also helped that Gausman didn’t have to pitch without the lead for long.
Alabama got to him for a run with its first two hitters when Taylor Dugas led the game off with a triple and Bret Booth quickly chased him home with a solid single to center field. That was the only time the Tide played from in front, though.
The Tigers responded in their half of the first inning when JaCoby Jones reached when he was hit by a pitch, Fields beat out an infield grounder on a fielder’s choice and Katz hammered a 1-and-0 pitch for a mammoth three-run homer.
“We’re trying to emphasize getting on top early,” Katz said. “We didn’t do that early in the year for our pitchers, but we are now and out pitchers love it.”
Now the goal shifts to winning the series with Ryan Eades on the mound against Tide freshman lefty Justin Kamplain in game 2, with first pitch slated for 6:30 p.m.