One step forward, one step back. Way back.
As simple as that sounds for LSU, the step back is also a punch below the belt because of how whisker-close the Tigers were to a victory on Saturday.
Instead, Texas A&M found a way to nab a 4-3 come-from-back-the-dead victory at Alex Box Stadium to win the series 2-1.
Walker Pennington’s two-out, three-run home run off of LSU closer Caleb Gilbert in the 9th inning flipped the script for both teams and propelled the Aggies to the unlikely victory.
And left LSU to assess the worst emotional damage it has incurred in what is evolving into a rollercoaster season.
“That’s about as tough as a loss can get,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said after his team squandered a 3-0 lead by allowing four 9th-inning runs. “It seemed like we had it all lined up, but we weren’t able to finish the game the way we planned.”
At the eye of the storm for the Tigers was the hard-throwing Gilbert, who stepped into the closer role three weeks ago when senior Hunter Newman went out with a back ailment.
Gilbert took over for Newman, out with three weeks with a herniated disc, who tossed a scoreless 8th, and got the first out of the 9th on his first pitch when Braden Shewmake rolled out to shortstop.
Momentum was on Gilbert’s side when he jumped ahead of Aggies’ cleanup batter Joel Davis 0-and-2, but then the unraveling began. Davis fouled off a pitch, took two balls, fouled off two more and then drew a walk.
George Janca battled Gilbert to a full count and punched a single to left field to bring up pinch-hitter Logan Foster as the potential tying run. Gilbert fought back to strike Foster out, but wasn’t as fortunate on the next three pitches.
Hunter Coleman rolled an RBI single through the middle to score Davis and whittle the difference to 3-1. Gilbert was wide with a pitch to Pennington and then tried to get a strike over, but the ball never got that far.
Pennington pounced on the pitch, a fastball that missed its location badly. and sent a rocket into the left-field bleachers to quiet the crowd and give A&M a 4-3 advantage.
“I swung and luckily I hit it,” Pennington said. “It was a great team win. Luckily we battled back. I have to give credit to the guys ahead of me. I was the sixth man up in the inning, so if they don't do their job, I never get to bat.”
And if not for a gritty performance by Aggies’ pitcher Corbin Martin in a great pitchers’ duel with Eric Walker, A&M (19-10, 3-6 SEC) might not have been within shouting distance in the final inning.
Martin and Walker were spectacular, matching zeroes most of the day with the Aggies’ converted closer going 8 strong innings and Walker a career-high 7 before handing the game over to Newman.
The only damage on the scoreboard until the 9th came from LSU in the 4th and 5th frames after Martin kept the Tigers hitless in the first 3 innings.
Antoine Duplantis started the 4th by yanking a single through the middle. Kramer Robertson followed and popped his second home run in as many days to left-center field to stake LSU to a 2-0 lead.
In the 5th, Beau Jordan reached on a leadoff walk and pestered Martin into a wild pitch, moved to third on a fly ball to deep left field and scored when Zach Watson whipped a single through the middle.
With Walker in a dominant groove, the 3-0 lead seemed awfully comfortable.
The Aggies threatened in the 2nd when they loaded the biases with one out after Walker plunked Coll Stanley. But Austin Homan popped out to catcher Mike Papierski on the first pitch and Walker won a long battle with pesky leadoff man Nick Choruby with a strikeout.
Those two outs triggered a stretch when Walker set down 17 of the final 18 batters he faced with four perfect innings.
Newman came on and got Homan on a liner to Robertson before Choruby produced A&M’s first hit since the 5th. Newman slipped into a 2-and-0 hole against Cole Bedford and induced a 5-4-3 double play to reduce the Aggies to their final three outs.
After A&M grabbed the lead, Mitchell Kilkenny relieved Martin and got the Tigers in order, with Choruby diving to haul in ball of the bat of Josh Smith on the warning track in left-center.
The final insult to injury in a game that was in the palm of the Tigers’ hands.
“We have no choice but to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and get ready for the second half of the season,” Mainieri said. “The calendar turned to April (Saturday), and that’s usually when we play our best baseball. This is a tough one, but we’ve got to digest it and get rid of it. This is a tough business, and our kids know they just have to get back out there and work hard and prepare to compete with everything they have.”