Baseball is a fickle game by any measure and when you play 18 innings in one day, there are bound to be some unexpected happenings along the way.
LSU’s day at Kentucky started in rough fashion at Cliff Hagan Stadium and didn’t seem to be getting better after one game ended and another began.
Then a hit from an unexpected bat, a walk from a guy who had struggled with patience in the opener, a gritty grinder getting hit by yet another pitch and a red-hot hitter getting the right swing against a reliever who has been ultra-stingy all season long all added up to a needed rally.
With the winning run delivered in the 8th inning, the Tigers rallied past the Wildcats 4-3 in the second game of the twin bill to gain a split after never mounted much of a threat after the first few innings in a 12-5 loss in the opener.
Following the split, the strangely configured series will resume at noon Sunday, with heavy rains expected in Lexington all day Saturday.
To break even, LSU (27-13, 10-7 SEC) had to grind and scratch for everything it could, especially when the Cats (27-13, 11-6) turned to reliever Logan Salow in the 5th inning.
Salow came into the weekend with 8 saves and a 0.31 ERA, and his entrance coincided with Tigers’ slugger Greg Deichmann stepping to the plate with the bases loaded and UK clinging to a 3-1 lead in the 5th inning after Cole Freeman took a pitch off the leg to force in a run.
Deichmann, who deposited a solo home run late in the first game – his 13th of the season – looked in bewilderment at three pitches from Salow, all strikes, for the second out.
That brought up Nick Coomes, hitting cleanup for the first time, and the Tigers’ hottest hitter yanked a first-pitch single from the Wildcats’ southpaw to chase home two runs and even the score, 3-3.
After struggling through the first 4 innings, LSU starter Alex Lange turned in perhaps the most important inning of the day on the mound in the bottom of the 5th when he mowed the Cats down 1-2-3 for the only time in 17 tries.
Lange followed that with more clutch pitching in the 6th inning. Evan White – one of many thorns in the Tigers’ side all day – rammed a leadoff double into the left-field corner to put LSU and its big ace in trouble.
Instead of breaking, Lange refused to even bend, striking out Zach Reks and Luke Becker before intentionally walking white-hot Riley Mahan.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri lifted Lange in favor of Zack Hess, and that strategy proved to be beneficial.
Hess retired the Cats when he coaxed Kole Cottam into a chopper to Josh Smith at third base for a forceout. After that, Hess worked around a leadoff walk in the 7th inning, Tristan Pompey’s leadoff double in the 8th and a two-out walk in the 9th without giving up a run.
The 8th-inning shutdown was the biggest part of Hess’ performance. With the speedy Pompey in scoring position, Hess got White on a fly ball to center field that advanced his teammate to third base, got a huge assist when Coomes dove left and snared a hot ground ball with the infield drawn in for second out and then ended the threat when Luke Becker skied out to Zach Watson 20 feet behind second base.
Meanwhile, an LSU offense that grappled with clutch hits most of the day came through again in the 8th, and taking a more aggressive approach against Salow finally proved to be the difference.
With one out, Smith poked an 0-and-2 pitch to right field. Mike Papierski yanked a ball to deep short for an infield single to add fuel and that brought up Duplantis in a key situation for the umpteenth time in the two games.
In four previous chances with a runner in scoring position, all Duplantis had to show was a sacrifice fly late in the opener after the outcome was well decided. His 5th-inning walk was the only time in eight plate appearances that he saw more than three pitches, which was harmful most of the day but paid off in his last at-bat.
With Smith at second base, Duplantis rifled the first pitch he got in his second appearance vs. Salow into right field for a single that sent Smith scampering home with a head-first slide and the go-ahead run.
The Tigers squandered two more chances to pad the lead in that inning and two more in the 9th to finish 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
This time it didn’t matter because Hess wouldn’t let it.
Mahan, who had six hits in his first seven at-bats of the doubleheader, yanked a sharp ground ball down the line that Coomes smothered for a 3-1 putout to start the UK 9th. Pinch-hitter T.J. Collette pumped a liner to right field that landed in grass, but Deichmann charged the ball and fired a strike to Coomes for a 9-3 putout.
Tyler Marshall worked his way on with a full-count walk, but Hess slammed the door by inducing a grounder from Storm Wilson to Kramer Robertson for a game-ending 6-4 fielder’s choice.
In the opener, Kentucky pounced on top with a two-run 1st inning and never trailed.
The Tigers did manage to forge a tie in the 2nd when Deichmann, Coomes and Smith slammed doubles off of Sean Hjelle. But LSU didn’t break through for the lead when Hjelle struck out Papierski and got Duplantis on line drive to short – the first two of eight consecutive empty at-bats with runners in scoring position.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats kept Jared Poche on his heels and never let up.
Kentucky scored three runs in the 3rd inning on Mahan’s double and a two-out, two-run single from Marshall. Beck pushed the lead to 6-2 with a solo homer to start the 5th when he stepped in at the DH spot and then added the exclamation point two innings later with a two-out grand slam against LSU reliever Russell Reynolds.
The Cats battered the Tigers for 16 hits in the first game, 13 from the top five spots in the batting order.
LSU managed to scratch out single runs in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings, but UK’s fourth double play of the game was part of the Tigers’ 0-for-5 performance with runners in scoring position in the last three innings.
Weather permitting, the pitching matchup in Game 3 features LSU freshman Eric Walker (5-0, 2.48 ERA) vs. Wildcats' sophomore Justin Lewis (5-2, 3.14).