Newman can now be called an “extended closer” after going 3 1/3 innings to earn the save in LSU’s seventh straight win. He struck out five of the 11 batters he faced and retired 10 straight to seal the win.
It was the longest outing of the season for the pitcher that missed all of 2014 while recovering from labrum surgery. He’s been a bright spot in the Tigers’ bullpen this year, and Friday marked his best night of the year.
“The story of the game was Hunter Newman,” said LSU coach Paul Maineiri. “What a performance by him. He was just amazing.”
Newman entered in a jam, as he’s done through most of this season. He replaced Jared Poché with two outs in the sixth inning and a runner on second. Newman walked the first batter he faced on four pitches, only the fourth free pass he’s issued all year.
That brought Auburn’s best hitter to the plate, Anfernee Grier, who entered the game with a .393 batting average. He’d already doubled twice in Friday’s game and served as the go-ahead run with LSU clinging to a 3-2 lead.
Newman sat him down looking and didn’t allow another base runner. That set off a run of 10 straight batters retired, including three straight strikeouts in the seventh.
Mainieri stuck with him through the ninth, and he was rewarded for the decision.
“He was so good that I decided not to take him out of the game,” Mainieri said. “I let him stay out there with a one-run lead because I had so much confidence in him.”
“I like a challenge out there,” Newman said. “I just try to go out there and get the job done…It pumped me up to close the game. It felt real good.”
While the final score may reflect a pitcher’s duel, it seemed in the early going like anything but.
Auburn jumped out to an early 2-0 lead after plating a pair off Poché in the first. Grier doubled in the first at-bat of the game and scored two plays later on another two-bagger. The third hit of the inning Poché surrendered brought in the second run.
Auburn would get a runner into scoring position each of the next three innings, but Poché managed to escape the damage. His defense bailed him out in the fourth.
2B Melvin Gray reached on a throwing error by Alex Bregman with one out. Grier followed him with a double off the wall in right-center field. Gray tried to score from first, but the relay throw from Andrew Stevenson to Bregman to Kade Scivicque was in time to save the run.
Poché struck out the next batter and ended the inning.
“That was a struggle for Poché to get through 5 2/3 innings,” Mainieri said. “At times we were rather very fortunate, but a couple times it was because of great plays…Poché needed it because he wasn’t real sharp tonight.”
LSU eked out the win offensively, doing all of its damage in the first two innings.
Jake Fraley reached on an error to start the first when the Auburn third baseman dropped a routine pop fly. Mark Laird doubled behind him to put two in scoring position for Bregman, who grounded out to bring in a run. Kade Scivicque doubled two at-bats later to tie it after one.
LSU took the lead in the second on an RBI-single by Laird.
The two teams went scoreless the rest of the way, but that was all LSU needed to secure the win.
“Our pitching staff stepped up,” Bregman said. “Seven scoreless was huge. It just gave us a chance to win on a night when our offense really wasn’t there.”
LSU aims to clinch the series Saturday night. First pitch is still scheduled for 6:30 p.m. despite ominous weather forecasts throughout the day. Mainieri did say after Friday’s game that he expects to play Game 2 as scheduled.
Austin Bain will make his first career start against Auburn ace Keegan Thompson. He’s pitching in place of Alex Lange, who’s resting a tight arm.