HOOVER, Ala. – Baseball is a game intertwined with percentages and odds and likelihoods.
Most of the time, those things are easy to manage and figure out after 58 games because trends develop and trust is established.
Sometimes none of it makes sense or follows the script, though.
For LSU, that day was Friday in a tough-to-choke-down 4-3 loss to Mississippi State in 10 innings at the SEC Tournament.
From a laser off Jordy Snikeris’ bat that narrowly missed kissing the left-field chalk, to perpetual strike-thrower Chris Cotton issuing back-to-back four-pitch walks to a pitcher-turned-pinch hitter Luis Pollorena driving in the tying run to .149 hitter Matthew Britton supplying the game-winner … all those percentages flipped over on the No. 2-ranked Tigers on this day.
“It’s just the way the game treats you sometimes,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said after his team’s second one-run loss to the Bulldogs (37-22) in three days.
And this one stings, although it doesn’t figure to have much bearing, if any, on the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament placement.
As the SEC regular-season champion, a top-five ranked team in the polls and a top-eight team in the RPI, LSU (43-16) is a lock to host a regional and likely a national seed as well – a year after being snubbed for the NCAA Tournament altogether.
None of that seemed to be much solace Friday, though, after the Tigers coughed up a ninth-inning lead.
“It’s a tough loss right now,” senior Austin Nola said. “We take it one game at a time and this is the last game we have. We’re going to look at the things we need to get better at. We’re going to grow from this and get better.”
For eight innings it sure looked like LSU would live another day in the tournament and get a semifinal shot at Kentucky. Instead, it’s State that will face the Wildcats for the second time in this tournament and the fifth time in the last nine days.
The Tigers jumped in front quickly against State starter Jacob Lindgren, a surprise starter. Nola drew a leadoff walk and moved up on Tyler Hanover’s bunt. Mason Katz scorched a ground ball to short that Adam Frazier deflected, but couldn’t come up with for a single. Raph Rhymes walked on four pitches and the bases were loaded and a big inning teed up.
|Ty Ross: Staked LSU to an early 2-0 lead|
But Lindgren got Snikeris on a called third strike on a full count to nearly wiggled free unscathed. Ty Ross made sure that didn’t happen when he ripped another full-count offering off the pitcher’s foot, the ball ricocheting into foul ground near the Bulldogs’ dugout.
That scored not only Nola, but Katz barreled around and beat first baseman Wes Rea’s throw to the plate for a 2-0 advantage.
The same kind of aggressiveness paid off in the second, this time with JaCoby Jones at the wheel. He legged out an infield leadoff single and then broke for second base on a full-count pitch to Arby Fields.
Fields hit a slow roller to Frazier, who scooped the ball up and fired in plenty of time to first base. Jones never slowed down coming around second and easily slid in safely at third base. Nola punched another grounder to Frazier to score Jones for a 3-0 advantage.
|JaCoby Jones: Two hustle plays helped Tigers generate a third run|
Making those early breaks loomed large because after that, the LSU bats went into hibernation.
Over the final eight innings, the Tigers were only 5-for-26 with two doubles plays, a whiffed hit-and-run that led to Snikeris being gunned down on a stolen-base attempt and six failed at-bats with runners in scoring position mingled in.
“We just as an offense didn’t do enough,” Nola said. “We had opportunities and we didn’t get the job done. We’ve got to get better.”
The best chance never materialized because a a laser off Snikeris’ bat narrowly went foul. With Katz on first base after a leadoff single in the eighth, Snikeris came up with one out and rifled a liner to left that third-base umpire Jeff Head immediately signaled foul. Snikeris eventually singled but was wiped out when Ross’ sharply hit ball to Frazier turned into a 6-4-3 double play.
Despite the offensive lull, LSU seemed to be in good shape. A blend of solid – sometimes spectacular – defense and Ryan Eades’ grittiness kept the Bulldogs from getting on the scoreboard for seven innings.
Eades was still far from razor-sharp, walking four and hitting another batter. He only allowed four hits, though, and grinded well enough to hold State at bay
It helped to have Rhymes make a fabulous diving catch on sinking liner with two on in the second. And two double plays behind Eades in the fourth and fifth frames were key. Likewise, a nice relay from Rhymes in right field to Jones to Snikeris at the plate nailed Rea as he lumbered around third base on a two-out Sam Frost double.
“For a long time, I thought we were fortunate to be shutting them out,” Mainieri said. “We made some great defensive plays.
“We were kind of living on the edge, which is pretty typical of Ryan Eades’ outings.”
The edge turned into a cliff late in the game, starting in the State eighth.
Cotton had entered in the seventh and blazed to a 1-2-3 inning to keep the Tigers in front 3-0. But he walked Frazier and Tyler Fullerton, both on four pitches, to open up a can of worms. Those were Cotton’s sixth and seventh free passes of the season in 37.2 innings.
Trey Porter tapped into a 4-6 fielder’s choice to put runners on the corners and Cotton couldn’t snuff out the rally as Hunter Renfroe rolled a base hit through the middle, just out of reach of Nola’s dive.
That was all State got, but it provided a spark that turned into a fire in the ninth.
Nick Goody came in hunting for his 11th save but he came up empty-handed.
Rea shanked a fly ball to start the frame that drifted toward the right-field line and landed barely fair and barely out of Katz’s reach for a double. Goody fanned Frost, but then surrendered back-to-back solid singles to Darryl Norris and Frazier, the second whittling the deficit to 3-2.
Still with runners on the corners and a chance to escape, Goody hit Fullerton with a pitch to load the bases for Pollorena, who had entered the game as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning.
The diminutive left-handed pitcher was stepping into the batter’s box for only the fourth time all season. Goody jumped ahead 1-and-2 and the plan was to deliver a fastball eye-high and see if Pollorena would chase.
Instead, the pitch came across belt-high and Pollorena got enough barrel on the ball to send it to center field for a sacrifice fly.
Goody escaped further damage in the ninth, but couldn’t do so in the 10th.
With one out, Mitch Slauter rammed a full-count pitch to center field for a double. Mainieri called on Nick Rumbelow to face Britton, who had also entered as a pinch-runner in the eighth.
After the count went full, Britton whistled a liner to the right of Jones at second base that he got a glove on, but not enough. The ball died in center field and that gave Slauter plenty of time to race home for the game-winner.
That stuck Goody with his second loss in as many outings after he gave up four hits and three runs in 1.1 innings.
“Most of the guys on our team can say that in a save situation, we want Nick Goody on the mound,” Ross said. “He’s a competitor and he’s going to go out there and give the best that he has.”
Added Mainieri, “Those kids have to pitch knowing the coach believes in them. And I believe in Nick Goody. He’s had a phenomenal year and we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now without him.”
That situation is one with a bitter taste for now, but that can’t linger.
The Tigers will open regional play Friday at home, their first home NCAA appearance since 2009.
“It’s a tough, tough loss for us, but it’s also something we’ll rebound from,” Mainieri said. “We’ll analyze it, put it in the rearview mirror and get ready for next week.”