In a season when LSU has spent an awful lot of time hunting and waiting for a clutch hit to turn a game around, things had gotten to borderline desperation levels Saturday in the middle of a weekend series against South Carolina.
Still stinging from a one-run loss the night before when the Tigers were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 2-for-16 with a runner on base, they seemed to be headed down that familiar unsavory path Saturday.
A handful of missed chances in the first 4 innings – two when slugger Greg Deichmann stranded runners in scoring position – left LSU with a gnawing feeling of déjà vu.
Before things got away, though, one of the veterans who has struggled as much anybody came through with a game-changing swing.
Cole Freeman’s 5th-inning triple scored two runs and set up a third when Antoine Duplantis lofted a sacrifice fly and those three runs flipped the game around as the Tigers pieced together a 5-2 win to even the series.
Jared Poche turned in the kind of grinder effort that have punctuated his career and relievers Zack Hess and Hunter Newman were just effective enough to stifle off a pair of late Gamecock threats.
The teams wrap up the series at 2 p.m. Sunday in a rubber game.
That possibility seemed in limbo for LSU (31-16, 14-9 SEC) after 4 scoreless frames against South Carolina starter Adam Hill.
The Gamecocks (27-18, 11-12) eased in front 1-0 in the top of the 4th when Poche staggered a bit with three walks – the last with the bases loaded to nine-hole batter Madison Stokes to force in a run. Hill posted a shutdown inning in the bottom half, which had become way too familiar for the Tigers.
LSU finally found its offensive rhythm the next inning, though, with a familiar kick-start. Mike Papierski walked to start the inning, continuing a recent trend when his patience at the plate has regularly paid dividends. Zach Watson punched a single to center field to set up the inning, but the Gamecocks threw a wet blanket on the excitement when catcher Hunter Taylor jumped on Kramer Robertson’s poorly executed bunt and fired a strike to third base to get Papierski for the first out.
Freeman worked the count to 2-and-2 and then shot a screaming liner down the first-base line that found grass and scooted all the way to the right-field corner for a two-run triple and a 2-1 Tigers’ lead. Duplantis whacked a 2-and-2 offering to center field to score Freeman for a 3-1 cushion.
“When Cole Freeman got that triple, you could almost feel in the dugout our entire team exhaling,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “The kids were pressing a little bit at the plate, and somebody has to step up and get it done. Cole Freeman did that, he was a leader (Saturday).”
LSU wasn’t done, and it helped that the lead remained two runs.
It was Poche’s turn for a shutdown frame and he did just that in the top of the 6th inning, getting the Gamecocks 1-2-3 for the third time in 6 innings.
Nick Coomes drew a four-pitch walk to open the 6th inning, Josh Smith took a pitch off his right elbow and both runners advanced when Jordan Romero sent a high chopper to second base.
Watson produced his second big hit in as many at-bats, this time dumping a single to right field that plated both runners for a 5-1 Tigers’ cushion.
Poche had one more inning in him and made it count, getting two quick outs and then coaxing dangerous three-hole hitter Carlos Cortes into a flyout to Deichmann in right field after a walk.
Mainieri summoned Hess – who has been lights out in his last several SEC outings – in the 8th inning. But South Carolina showed some life when Hess hit Jonah Bride, who stole second as Riley Hogan struck out on a full-count pitch. TJ Hopkins laced an RBI single to center field to score Bride and close the gap to 5-2 and he stole second when Hess didn’t do much to hold him close.
Before South Carolina got any closer, Hess retired DH Ross Grosvenor on a fly ball to deep right and caught Hunter Taylor looking at a third strike.
Newman took over to start the 9th inning and created some drama when he walked the pesky Stokes on four pitches to start the at-bat. Alex Destino poked a one-out pinch-hit single to bring the powerful Cortes to the plate as the potential tying run and he jumped ahead in the count 2-and-0.
Unflappable as always, Newman got Cortes to roll over on a breaking ball, resulting in a grounder to Freeman, who calmly flipped the ball to Robertson to trigger a game-ending 4-6-3 double play.
That provided an exclamation point to Newman’s 7th save and Poche’s 8th victory.
“He was typical Jared Poche: He bends, but he doesn’t break,” Mainieri said. “There are a couple of times in the game where the other team thinks they have him, but Poche finds another gear, gets out of the jam, and then he gets stronger as the game goes on. His best innings tonight were the 5th, 6th and 7th innings, where he was really magnificent.
”Eric Walker )5-1, 3.69 ERA) gets the ball Sunday for the Tigers, who are seeking their fourth series win in the last five, as well as some momentum for the two final weekends against SEC frontrunners Auburn and Mississippi State.
ON DECK | South Carolina at LSU
Game 1 | South Carolina 3, LSU 2
Game 2 | LSU 5, South Carolina 2
Game 3 | 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Alex Box Stadium
RECORDS: South Carolina 27-18, 11-12 SEC; LSU 31-16, 14-9
RADIO: 98.1-FM (Baton Rouge)
TV/LIVESTREAM: ESPN/SEC Network+, WatchESPN.com
ON THE WEB: TigerBlitz.com
TWITTER: @RandyRosetta, @BillyEmbody, @LSUBaseball
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS
Sunday | South Carolina TBA vs. LSU, Fr. Eric Walker (5-1, 3.69 ERA, 61 IP, 52 SO/14 BB, .244 OBA)
South Alabama at LSU, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday