On a night when so much went off script and against the grain of how LSU has played most of this season, maybe it simply made sense that something comfortable and expected would turn things around.
Something like senior Austin Nola stepping into the batter’s box in a big situation and delivering a game-changing play.
After a 7½ innings of frustration when Georgia scratched and clawed its way to a lead with one unlikely hit after another, Nola got a chance to turn the tide and he did with a two-run home run that Nick Goody made hold up – barely – for a 6-5 Tigers’ triumph at Alex Box Stadium.
Third-ranked LSU took an SEC series opener for the sixth time in seven weeks, won its ninth league game by a run and improved to 9-1 at home in league play this season.
|Celebration: The Tigers celebrate at home plate after Austin Nola's 2-run home run in the eighth inning.|
Nola was the clear-cut hero, but he had plenty of wing men.
Raph Rhymes helped set up the Tigers’ eighth inning with the last of his three hits. Chris Cotton got the win in relief after relieving Kevin Gausman, who notched six frustrating but gritty innings. And Goody came up with big pitches to stand Bulldog base runner Curt Powell in scoring position after he got to second base with no outs in the top of the ninth inning and third base with one out.
When the dust settled, the final result was another pulsating win for a team that has made a living out of winning close games in a variety of ways.
“The season is defined by the one-run games and we’ve been winning a few,” Nola said. “That’s how we like it.”
LSU (34-9, 13-6) had plenty to like Friday, thanks in large part to Nola.
The Tigers came to bat in the eighth inning down 5-4 after the previous at-bat fizzled out with the bases loaded after Jordy Snikeris poked a two-out single, JaCoby Jones walked and Arby Fields beat out an infield tapper.
Georgia starter Alex Wood got an 0-and-2 count on Mason Katz and won the battle when the Tigers’ three-hole hitter skied out to right field.
“He kept us off-balance all night,” Nola said. “To see him out of the game was a relief.”
Bryan Benzor took over and on his first pitch, Rhymes chopped a slow grounder to shortstop Kyle Farmer, who tried to bare-hand the ball but couldn’t corral it.
Nola squared to bunt and took ball one. He didn’t square on the second pitch and took ball two. After seeing his team ground into two more double plays earlier, LSU coach Paul Mainieri put Rhymes in motion but he didn’t have to run hard for long because Nola mashed a Benzor fastball into the left-field bleachers, creating a snapshot memory.
“I was looking for a fastball,” Nola said. “He left one up and I hit it well.”
“It means a lot look over at the dugout and everybody is rooting you. That means a lot and they’re so excited when you get to home plate.”
There was still work to do, though, and Georgia (24-19, 8-11) – as was the case all night with Gausman – made sure Goody didn’t breeze through the ninth.
Powell led off and rammed an 0-and-2 pitch to right field for a leadoff single and he swiped second base with Conor Welton at the plate. Goody got Welton on a groundout to second base, but Powell motored to third base with the three- and four-hole hitters coming up.
Goody, who notched his 8th save (6th in SEC play, all by a run), got Farmer on a fly ball to Katz who charged in and snared the ball a few feet outside the infield dirt. After a long tussle with Brett DeLoach, Goody slammed the door when he got the Bulldogs’ catcher on a foul-out to his counterpart, Ty Ross.
The last pitch was a full-count slider after DeLoach had fouled off three pitches.
“Coach (Alan) Dunn called it and it helped me to know he had confidence in me to throw that pitch,” Goody said.
The Bulldogs had every reason to be confident that they’d get to Goody after harassing Gausman for 10 hits in six innings, very few that were struck very well.
Georgia erased three LSU leads against Gausman with a two-out run in the second inning on an opposite-field flair, two runs in the third on five singles – four that never left the infield – and two more in the fifth when a pair of Tyler Hanover errors paved the way.
The third inning was the Bulldogs’ signature of the night, with four consecutive hits to start the inning and Peter Verdin’s popper over first baseman Tyler Moore.
“That’s the most frustrating inning I’ve ever been a part of,” Mainieri said.
But it also showed Gausman’s mettle.
With Georgia finding a hole every time contact was made, he struck out three in the frame – Justin Bryant and Jonathan Hester with the bases loaded.
Despite surrendering the 10 hits, which matched Gausman has ever allowed, he kept LSU in the game as he struck out 9 and didn’t mix in any walks. The Bulldogs were 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position for the game – 0-for-9 after Verdin’s hit in the third.
|Raph Rhymes: 3-for-4 night swells his season average to .503|
“They battled,” Nola said of the Georgia hitters. “They found ways to put balls in play. But Gausman kept battling and we found a way to score when we had to.”
A familiar way, thanks to Nola, something comfortable and expected.
“Every time a big situation comes up, it seems like he’s at the plate,” Rhymes said after pushing his season average to .503. “When I got on base, I knew he was going to compete and fight and get the job done. He crushed that ball.”
The series resumes at 6:30 p.m. Saturday with LSU’s Ryan Eades squaring off with Bulldogs’ senior Michael Palazzone.