There might have been a lot of people at Alex Box Stadium Wednesday night expecting to breathe easy when LSU took the Alex Box Stadium diamond for the first time with its newly minted No. 1 ranking against a Lamar team with a less-than-glossy record.
That didn’t include the contingent in the Tigers’ dugout. More importantly, it also didn’t include the Cardinals.
Sparked by an attention-getting home run in the first inning, Lamar gave LSU all it wanted before the Tigers leaned on a familiar source for the game-winning run to escape with a 5-4 triumph.
The victory was the seventh straight for LSU (31-7), and the most difficult it has had in a midweek game this season.
Now the Tigers can exhale and look ahead to a showdown at No. 2-ranked Kentucky this weekend, the third weekend in four that LSU will square off against a top-3 team.
“Baseball is a game that humbles you in a hurry of you don’t play the way you need to,” said Tigers’ closer Nick Goody, who notched his 5th save with a 1-2-3, but noisy, ninth inning with three lineouts. “Those games came out and swing the bats well and really made us battle.”
Fortunately for LSU, it had Raph Rhymes for that battle.
The junior was back in left field for the first time since April 6, which was a sidenote in relation to another huge offensive night.
Rhymes was 3-for-4 and drove in three runs – the Tigers’ first two with a double in the first inning to knot the score 2-2, and the last one with a two-out single in the seventh inning.
Rhymes upped his average to .484 and said he was a little surprised to get a shot at chasing in the game-winner against Lamar reliever Machon Trimm.
With Jared Foster on second base and JaCoby Jones on first, Trimm came close to wiggling out of trouble. He came on to retire Arby Fields on an popup to second base and Mason Katz on a fly ball to shallow right.
Rhymes took the first pitch and then rammed a single through the middle to score Foster.
“I didn’t think I was probably going to see too much to hit,” Rhymes said. “I was looking off-speed away and they came in and I got a good pitch to hit.”
That lead – LSU’s only of the game – held up when Kurt McCune worked around a leadoff walk in the eighth inning by coaxing Aaron Olivas to hit into a 6-4-3 double play with Austin Nola, Jones and Tyler Moore each making a nice play on their portion of the twin killing.
Then in the ninth inning, Goody retired the top third of the Cardinals’ order on a liner to Jones at second, a sinking shot to Rhymes in left and a sharply hit ball that Nola snared to end the game.
Chris Cotton notched his fourth win with 1.1 innings of scoreless relief, part of a stretch when LSU relievers held Lamar (13-22) scoreless over the final 4.1 frames.
“We knew they were a good team coming in,” said Cotton, who has allowed only four earned runs in 20.1 innings this season. “They beat Baylor and Rice and Southeastern (Louisiana), so we weren’t taking them lightly. This is a game we knew was going to be a dogfight.”
That came to fruition very quickly when Darian Johnson hammered a Joe Broussard pitcher into the right-field bleachers for a 2-0 Cardinals’ lead in the first inning.
The Tigers clawed back quickly when Fields singled to left field, Katz dropped a base hit to right and Rhymes yanked a double into left-center field to score both runners.
“Raph just keeps coming through with big hits for us, clutch hits,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’m glad that guy’s on our team.”
Lamar kept the pressure on, scoring single runs in the third and fifth frames on ground-ball outs with a runner on third base. The Cardinals scattered eight hits and got the leadoff man on base six times in nine innings, but could never break out with a big inning.
Neither could the Tigers either, though.
LSU kept pace when Tyler Hanover came through with a clutch two-out single to score Rhymes in the fourth and later when Ty Ross lofted a fly ball just deep enough to right field to plate Nola, who had smashed a leadoff double to center field and advanced on Moore’s roller to first base.
Grant Dozar began the seventh by drawing a leadoff walk against Lamar reliever Ben Coram and Foster pinch-ran. Jones also walked to set up Rhymes’ chance to deliver.
And he did quickly, which has become his style.
Knowing he might not get many pitches to hit as the count goes deeper, Rhymes has been aggressive early in counts – two of his hits Wednesday came before the third offering of the at-bat or earlier.
“I don’t like to sit around waiting for a pitch,” Rhymes said. “I try to be as aggressive as I can be.”
That paid off big-time Wednesday, helping LSU survive a scare and win for the 14th time in 15 games – this time in gut-check style.
“We got the win and that’s what matters most,” Goody said. “Now we can take this and understand we have to play better at Kentucky.”