As the large crowd at Alex Box Stadium rose to its feet with Georgia’s Keegan McGovern circling the bases Saturday night, LSU senior pitcher Jared Poche was a little confused and, well, mad.
After a few seconds, though, Poche understood what the ovation was for.
The Tigers notched a methodical albeit not explosive 5-1 victory against Georgia to claim a series win on the opening weekend of SEC play.
Antoine Duplantis remained scorching hot with a solo home and a clutch two-run single in the 6th inning for a big part of the story line – actually that was most of LSU’s offense.
But has been the case every time Poche has taken the mound this season, he stole most of the thunder with another gritty performance.
The only blemish was McGovern’s solo homer, which ended Poche’s 32-inning scoreless streak to begin the season.
Which was fodder for a nice response from the home crowd, even if it was a little perturbing at first blush.
“It kind of ticked me off a little bit,” Poche’ said. “I kind of thought ‘Man, are they cheering that he hit a home run off me?’ Then it sunk in what they were clapping for. That was definitely a first for me.”
Maybe so, but putting the Tigers on his back certainly is nothing new for the senior southpaw.
A night after peppering the Bulldogs (8-12, 0-2 SEC) for 22 runs on 22 hits, LSU’s offense sputtered and coughed against freshman right-hander Tony Locey in the first several innings.
Locey came in with a 7.74 ERA, but limited the Tigers (15-5, 2-0) to just two tallies in the first 4 frames.
Josh Smith’s RBI groundout staked LSU to a 1-0 lead in the 2nd, but McGovern evened the score with his bomb to start the Georgia 4th. Duplantis hammered the first pitch from Locey into the right-field bleachers to get the lead back for Poche.
In the Tigers’ 5th, Locey suddenly became unhinged. He retired Reid on a routine ground ball but then threw 12 straight balls to load the bases. He fell behind Duplantis 3-and-0, battled back to a full count before the Tigers’ left field fouled off the next four pitches and then laced a single to right field to score Nick Coomes and Kramer Robertson for a 4-1 cushion.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said that at-bat conjured up memories of former star Alex Bregman. For Duplantis, it was more of what he has done in the seven games since he was moved to the 3-hole.
Including a 6-for-6, 7-RBI explosion Friday against Georgia, Duplantis has chased home 20 runs in seven games in the 3-hole.
“I haven’t really changed anything and I don’t want to,” said Duplantis, now batting .388. “I just want to keep doing what I know I can and not try to do too much.”
Whatever the formula, Duplantis has his teammates’ attention.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Tigers’ slugger Greg Deichmann said. “He’s seeing it well, he’s making consistent contact and he’s finding holes everywhere.”
Holes weren’t really available for the Georgia offense, and it wasn’t only because of Poche.
The Bulldogs actually swung the bats well, producing seven hits in Poche’s 7 innings, mostly when he challenged them “right down the pipe,” Poche said.
Georgia put runners on base in every inning except the 5th, but Poche weaved around trouble with the help of three double plays, with second baseman Cole Freeman part of all of them and Kramer Robertson two as the middle of the LSU defense continued to dominate games with their gloves.
“They picked me up,” Poche said. “They’ve been doing it all year. If those plays aren’t made, I probably don’t make it to the 7th inning.”
When Poche ran out of steam, throwing his 104th pitch to get Bulldogs’ 9-hole batter Will Proctor on a 4-6 fielder’s choice, Mainieri turned to Caleb Gilbert and got just what LSU needed: A reliever who stepped in and showed closer’s stuff with Hunter Newman out of action with a back injury.
Gilbert yielded a single to leadoff man Tucker Maxwell in the 8th inning and another hit to pinch-hitter J.T. Talley with outs in the 9th. But woven around those hits were four strikeouts as the sophomore notched his first save of the year.
Which gave Poche a 5-0 record, despite seeing his memorable streak ended but his spot as one of the top pitcher in the SEC solidified as much as ever.
“Jared Poche doesn't care about records,” Mainieri said. “He doesn't care about streaks. He just wants to win. He went out there (Saturday) and he did what he always does: He competed. For four years, I’ve had the privilege of watching him pitch. He's really amazing to me. He just finds a way to get out of jams.
“For four years I’ve had the pleasure of watching that kid go out there and compete as hard as he can. He’s really amazing to me.”
The teams conclude the series at 1 p.m. Sunday when Tigers' freshman Eric Walker (2-0, 2.14 ERA) gets his first crack at an SEC lineup. Thhe Bulldogs counter with perhaps their best arm, junior righty Case Adkins (3-0, 2.08).