All alone at the top

Tigers take care of business against South Carolina as Slaid and Cotton step into the limelight.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – As the ball hovered in the Carolina Stadium air Saturday, LSU closer Nick Goody admittedly let his calm and cool demeanor drift away.

 

And when the ball finally settled softly into first baseman Mason Katz’s mitt for the final out of the Tigers’ stirring 3-2 10-inning triumph against South Carolina, Goody and his teammates didn’t hide their emotions.

Nick Goody: Survives a rocky start to the 10th to log his 10th save

 

What was obvious by then was that LSU had won at least a part of something special.

 

A few hours later, thanks to Mississippi State’s 11-3 romp past Kentucky to complete a sweep, the Tigers had that prize all to themselves.

 

2012 SEC champions.

 

LSU’s win on Saturday, coupled with losses by Florida and Kentucky, lifted the No. 9-ranked Tigers to the outright SEC regular-season crown.

 

As soon as the ball landed in Katz’s glove, LSU’s dugout and bullpen emptied as the players converged in the middle of the diamond to celebrate.

 

“This is a memorable day, really – certainly in a coaching career, but those kids will never forget this day,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “They’ll never forget that day, what it took for our guys to pull this off was something extra ordinary and they gave it.

 

“It’s just a remarkable feeling. I’m just so proud of the guys. Saying you’re so proud of them seems so inadequate. It’s beyond words I can even use to describe how I feel. It’s just fantastic.”

 

Fantastic came in many forms and from unexpected sources to get the Tigers to the top of the SEC heap.

 

While Goody and Katz have been in the spotlight all season, three of the Tigers’ more unheralded players played major roles in Saturday’s outcome.

 

Junior Chris Cotton notched three scoreless – nearly flawless – innings to get the game to extra innings

 

Jordy Snikeris came off the bench with a sore finger that had caused Mainieri to say the senior was available only in an emergency, and he scored the go-ahead run in the 10th inning.

 

And rarely used Jackson Slaid sprinted in from the bullpen to deliver a two-out RBI single in the 10th inning to put LSU (42-14, 19-11 SEC) in front.

 

“You never know who’s going to be the hero, but that’s been kind of the story of our team all year – different hero every day,” Mainieri said.

 

Katz joined into the mix when he gave the Tigers an insurance run in the 10th inning when he rolled another two-out base hit through the middle right after Slaid’s base hit. He also drove in Arby Fields with a groundout in the first inning for LSU’s first run.

 

Down 3-1 after the Tigers’ unlikely two-out rally, second-ranked Carolina (39-15, 18-11) made a final lunge, culminating with the ball that Goody said stayed in the air “a freakin’ eternity.”

 

“The whole time I was yelling ‘Tyler (Moore) you better catch that,’ ” Goody said. “And then out of nowhere came Mason, whose defense was incredible all weekend.

 

“That’s just a moment that I’m going to treasure forever.”

 

Goody got the final three outs after the Gamecocks closed a two-run gap to one when Evan Marzilli led off with a liner to center that was misplayed into a double and Adam Matthews singled to right field.

 

With runners on the corners, South Carolina slugger Christian Walker stepped up with a chance to duplicate his effort from Friday when he tied the second game of a doubleheader with a three-run homer.

 

As the crowd of 8,242 rocked and rumbled to a roar, Goody threw a ball and then got Walker to sky out to Foster in center field. Marzilli scored on the sacrifice fly, but that seemed to turn the tide. LB Dantzler flied out lazily to right field on an 0-and-2 pitch and Goody squashed the threat when Grayson Greiner’s swing led to the popup that Katz nabbed to lock up Goody’s 10th save.

 

“My biggest thing is I’m going to go right after hitters with the best stuff I have,” Goody said. “I don’t worry about what he did last night or what he’s going to do. I just go after him. That’s what I do. The baseball is a weapon and that’s what I’m going after him with.”

 

Leading up to the dramatic ending, the way LSU’s game-winning rally unfolded was hard to fathom.

 

Snikeris – injured late in a 5-2 win Friday and out of action until he pinch-hit in the seventh inning Saturday – started the Tigers’ 10th by drawing a four-pitch walk against Evan Beal. Tyler Hanover bunted him up a base, but Carolina got the second out when JaCoby Jones’ wicked liner went right to second baseman Chase Vergason.

 

Pitching carefully to leadoff man Austin Nola, Beal walked him to get to Arby Fields. That strategy made sense, although Fields got the Tigers on the scoreboard in the first when he slapped a double to right field, advanced on a passed ball and scored on Katz’s grounder.

 

But Fields was hitless in his last four at-bats, including an eighth-inning strikeout with a runner at third base and one out.

 

With Snikeris on second base and Nola on first, the wheels began turning with both coaches as Ray Tanner made a pitching change to left-hander Tyler Webb.

 

Jackson Slaid: Delivers a clutch 2-out 1B to put LSU ahead in the 10th

In response, Mainieri summoned Slaid to pinch-hit because the switch-hitting Fields is a more effective threat from the left side.

 

Problem was, Slaid was in the bullpen in full catcher’s gear warming up Goody and Nick Rumbelow.

 

Slaid sprinted in, grabbed a bat and a helmet, asked Katz for some advice on facing Webb and went to the batter’s box.

 

“The stage was set,” Katz said. “He had to run in from the bullpen to get to home plate – no warmup swings, he just had to step in the box.”

 

Unfazed by the situation, Slaid stepped in vs. Webb and looked at three balls go by and then strike one. He fouled off the next offering and on a full-count pitch, Slaid went the other way and dropped a single into shallow right to send Snikeris barreling home with the go-ahead run.

 

“(Mainieri) threw it on me but I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity,” Slaid said after collecting his first SEC hit of the season in nine at-bats. “I was just glad to help my team.

 

“He said I could swing 3-and-0, but it wasn’t really a pitch I wanted and then I was right on that 3-1 pitch and I just missed it. On 3-2 he threw it again and I stayed inside of it and drove it into right field.”

 

For Slaid and the other Tigers to have a chance to get the lead, Cotton had to be tough-as-nails and he was.

 

The Gamecocks threatened all day long against LSU starter Ryan Eades, but he toughed it out and limited them to one run on seven hits in the first 5.1 innings, standing eight runners.

 

Brent Bonvillain entered in the sixth and got a 4-6-3 double play and the one and only pitch he threw to leave the game tied 1-1.

 

Cotton took over in the seventh and for three innings the LSU left-hander simply baffled the Carolina hitters.

 

The only base runner Cotton allowed was a two-out walk in the ninth inning and he survived that by fanning Tanner English a few pitches after English had nearly ended the game with a line drive down the left-field line.

 

“I was just able to get ahead and keep them off balance and that is what’s key for me,” Cotton said.

 

“It was huge being able to hold them off and keeping them to zeroes just long enough for Jackson Slaid to come in.”

 

Long enough for Slaid to be the unlikeliest of heroes.

 

“It’s a cool feeling,” the Sibley native said. “I grew up at the old (Alex Box Stadium) like a lot of these guys did. It’s definitely a cool feeling.”

 

Added Katz, who two years ago similarly came through late in the season, “Coach looked around and said ‘Who should be hitting?’ We all believed in Jackson the whole time. Throughout the fall he was just clutch the whole time. It was just his time to come through. He’s battled and waited his turn.”

 

LSU will be the No. 1 seed at next week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., which means a first-round bye.

 

The Tigers will play the second game of the second round on Wednesday against the lowest remaining seed from Tuesday’s first-round action. LSU’s pool will include Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas.


BOX SCORE

NOTES: Eades shows some moxie

SERIES WRAP: LSU 3, South Carolina 2 (10)

USC claims East Division crown

GAME 2: Photo finish

GAME 1: Getting off on the right foot

SEC Tournament bracket


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