But finding a way to knock off the Rebels at Swayze Field was just a little sweeter.
Consider how many Tiger teams have come and gone since that last happened in 2002 and you’ll understand why Sunday’s series-clinching victory was so meaningful.
Add in the fact that LSU (38-11, 16-8 SEC) stays tied for the league lead and increased its West Division lead to four games, and the impact becomes a little clearer.
JaCoby Jones chased in a career-best 5 runs, Austin Nola broke things open with a 3-run home run in the fourth inning and starting pitcher Aaron Nola was as sharp as he has been all season as fourth-ranked LSU bounced back to take the series 2-1 after a 7-4 loss on Saturday.
The Tigers piled up their biggest run total against an SEC foe this season, with a pair of 5-run frames as the foundation. LSU bashed four home runs in a game for the first time since March 7, 2009 and never looked back after Austin Nola’s back-breaking blow.
The victory kept the Tigers in a first-place tie with hard-charging South Carolina for the overall league lead, and coupled with Arkansas and Mississippi State losses, LSU has a four-game cushion in the West with two weekends to play.
“Coming here in this environment, the way things are, it’s as nice as it gets,” said Mason Katz, who broke an 0-for-12 slump with a solo home run that triggered a 5-run 6th inning. Katz was the target of some colorful heckling from fans in right field all weekend.
Added Austin Nola, “This is big for us. To beat a team like that, a very good team, we did very well this weekend and I’m proud of our guys.”
|Aaron Nola: Notches 7 strong innings to record his 6th win|
Aaron Nola got overshadowed by the offensive eruption a bit, but his performance may have been the most important sign for the fourth-ranked Tigers as they move toward the postseason.
The freshman righty logged 7 rock-solid innings Sunday, allowing seven hits and three runs – the last on Auston Bousfield’s solo blast after LSU had built a 12-2 lead.
Besides that homer, the only big blow Nola surrendered was matt snyder’s two-run double in the third inning after Andrew Mistone walked with two outs and Alex Yarbrough punched a single off of Katz’s glove at first base.
How good was Nola? He wasn’t even sure himself after he got started on the right foot, throwing 13 of 14 first-inning pitches for strikes.
“At the beginning of the game I didn’t have as much command,” he said. “I was kind of missing my spots with my fastball.”
The Tigers made sure Nola never had to pitch from behind by jumping ahead 2-0 in the second inning.
Raph Rhymes led off with a single, Alex Edward bunted him over and Ole Miss starter Dylan Chavez hit Jordy Snikeris with a pitch. After Ty Ross flew out to center for the second out, Tyler Hanover worked Chavez for a walk to load the bases.
Jones, a Mississippi native who was recently dropped back into the nine-hole in the batting order after his average dipped into the .240s, took ball one and then rammed a double down the left-field line.
Later when LSU buried the Rebels (31-18, 11-13) for good with the big 6th inning, Jones whacked a three-run home run the opposite way, his fifth hit in two games and the third that produced at least two runs.
“It’s about time for me,” Jones said. “I’ve just been trying to be confident at the plate, being simple and getting a pitch to swing at and making something good happen.
“I’m just sitting on breaking balls. That’ what they threw me all night the first game. So when I got in fastball counts, that’s what I was looking for.”
There was plenty of aggressive swinging early in counts by the Tigers, and perhaps the biggest swing of the game Sunday came on the second pitch of the fourth inning.
|Ty Ross: Solo blast to start the 5th inning gives LSU the lead for good|
With the scored deadlocked 2-2, Ross stepped in against Chavez and drilled a line-drive home run to left field to immediately give the Tigers the lead back and for good as it turned out.
There was extra some motivation for Ross’ third bomb of the season.
On Snyder’s double, Jones made a nice relay throw to the plate that appeared to beat Alex Yarbrough. But the ball popped out of Ross’ glove to allow the second run to cross.
“There was a play at the plate and I felt like I could’ve had him,” Ross said. “I left that ball out there. It was a close play and I was trying to be quick. I went up there the next inning and tried to get something going. He threw me a good pitch to hit and I reacted.”
So did the Tigers. Triggered by Ross, LSU took off.
Jones and Arby Fields pumped back-to-back singles to left-center field off reliever Josh Laxer and Austin Nola crushed a 1-and-2 offering into the left-field bleachers.
With two outs and Rhymes on first after Laxer plunked him, the third pitcher of the inning – Aaron Greenwood – walked three hitters in a row, with Ross getting his second RBI of the inning to nudge the lead to 7-2.
“Ty started off the inning and got us going,” Nola said.
“It’s big for us to have innings like that, to know we can win close games and win games like that. It gives us a lot of confidence for the long run.”
The Tigers were far from done, though.
Katz reignited the fuse when he drove a Greenwood pitch to left-center field just over the fence for his team-best 9th homer of the season. A Tyler Moore double, a Snikeris single, Ross’s sac fly and Tyler Hanover’s base hit generated a pair of runs and set up Jones.
Whatever drama remained evaporated when the talented sophomore uncoiled and launched the ball into the right-field bullpen.
Breaking out this weekend could be a key for Jones and LSU.
Tigers coach Paul Mainieri made it clear he intends to keep Jones in the nine-hole, which could wind up being a nice weapon.
“It takes a lot of pressure off him and he doesn’t press as much,” Mainieri said. “His home run to right field was an awesome swing. He had good swings all weekend.”
Added Ross, “We all know he can play the game. It’s just a matter of time before he gets locked in. Once he gets locked in, he’s locked in. I think you’re going to see a lot of JaCoby Jones in the future.”
The future might be now for two of the Tigers’ freshmen as well.
Aaron Nola settled into a dominant groove after he got the lead, retiring eight of 10 hitters until Bousfield’s homer. The LSU defense chipped in with a pair of double plays behind him to end the 5th and 7th frames.
“I had to go out there and keep my focus, because after an inning when we score, for me to put up a zero changes the mood,” Nola said.
“That’s a momentum-changer. I knew I needed to keep us in the ballgame and not give up any more runs.”
Moore also had a breakthrough weekend with 5 hits and the first RBI of the first two games. Even when Moore made outs, his swing looked more comfortable than it has all season.
“The ball was rocketing off his bat,” Mainieri said. “I didn’t even know he could hit the ball as hard as he did this weekend. He’s coming into his own.”
LSU heads into finals week without a game until Friday when Vanderbilt visits Alex Box Stadium for the final SEC weekend of the season.