Redemption is a recurring thread in a baseball game. Second chances, sometimes third chances, come around and what a pitcher or hitter does with them become part of the fabric of how that game turns out.
LSU’s Josh Smith and Mike Papierski seized their re-do moments Friday night against Auburn, and coupled with Jared Poche’s grit and Zach Watson capitalizing on all three of his offensive opportunities, the home Tigers found a way at Alex Box Stadium.
Papierski’s two-run home run off of AU ace Keegan Thompson in the bottom of the 7th inning propelled LSU to a 5-3 victory, which sewed up a series win with the finale remaining on Saturday.
That homer drove in Smith, who began the inning with a tough-nosed at-bat that yielded a walk.
The redemption thing? For Papierski it was eradicating the taste Thompson striking him out and making him look bad two innings before.
Smith’s bounceback was from something much more dramatic: A damaging two-out error in the top of the 7th that swing the door open for two Auburn runs after Poche departed and created a 3-3 deadlock.
“Keegan got me the at-bat before,” Papierski said. “He got me looking on a fastball inside for the second strike and then got me to chase a breaking ball in the dirt. That last time, he threw me a cutter on the first pitch that wasn’t close, so I was sitting fastball and got fastball and put the barrel on it. It felt good.
“The big thing was that Josh didn’t hang his head after his error. He made that mistake but came up to start the inning and battled his was on base. That’s what you have to do.”
Watson spent the whole night doing what he needed to do to help LSU claim its third SEC series in a row and fourth in the last five.
Prior to Papierski’s big blow, Watson yanked a two-out two-run blast off of Thompson in the 5th inning to pad LSU’s lead to 3-0. Beau Jordan gave LSU a man on base when he grinded through his at-bat by fouling off five pitches before zapping a ground ball that handcuffed third baseman Josh Anthony for an infield single.
Watson was instrumental in LSU’s taking a 1-0 lead in the 3rd inning as well. Papierski walked with one out and when he broke from first base on a 2-and-1 count, Watson lashed a grounder past Anthony to put runners on the corners. Kramer Robertson chopped a ball to second base to score the run.
Those three mini rallies, fueled greatly by the timely two home runs, were as much as LSU (34-17, 17-9 SEC) could muster against Thompson.
After allowing only two home runs in the first 52.1 innings this season, Thompson has surrendered four in the last 17 – two Friday and two vs. Alabama last week.
“They left the yard and hit two home runs and we didn’t,” AU coach Butch Thompson said after his crew’s sixth consecutive loss. “Outside of those two swings, (Thompson) was about as efficient as he has been.”
Same couldn’t be said of the Auburn lineup, which has produced one earned run in 18 innings the last two nights.
Poche wasn’t dominant in the first few innings, but the senior’s customary resilience and the SEC’s best defense behind him contributed to AU’s struggles to push anything across the plate when chances were there.
Jonah Todd opened the game with a single, the first of his four hits, but two batters later he was erased when LSU second baseman Cole Freeman smothered a sharp grounder off Conor Davis’ bat and triggered a 4-6-3 double play. Dylan Ingram began the 2nd frame with another hit, his fourth in two nights, but Poche induced a 5-4-3 twin killing.
“That’s huge,” Poche said. “We’ve got the best defense in the SEC and probably in the country. It’s important for me to have trust in those guys behind me so I know I make big pitches because I know they’re going to pick me up.”
In the 4th inning, Poche walked the first two hitters, but got Ingram on a fly ball to right and Josh Anthony on a grounder to Freeman, with Papierski gunning down Davis trying to steal in between on what appeared to be a botched hit-and-run.
After getting blanked 4-0 on Thursday, Auburn (32-20, 14-12) generated nine hits against Poche and relievers Zack Hess and Hunter Newman, but AU was 2-for-16 with runners on base, 1-for-7 with a man in scoring position.
“Offense has got to score some runs,” Thompson said. “We’ve scored three runs in two games. That’s hard to win at home, on the moon on the road at Alex Box Stadium. We’ve just got to keep going until it happens for us.”
A little actually did finally happen to allow Auburn to forge a 3-3 tie in the seventh inning.
With two outs, Estes dumped a single to right field to end Poche’s night. Hess entered and on his first pitch, Will Holland chopped a ball to Smith, who scooped it up without a hitch but then kicked up dirt with the throw, the ball scooting past Nick Coomes and far enough way for a three-base error that plated Estes.
Hess jumped ahead of Todd, but surrendered a soft liner just over Robertson’s head for an RBI single and 3-3 tie.
The tie seemed to energize Auburn, but the energy faded quickly.
Smith shrugged off his massive defensive gaffe by battling Thompson for a walk to begin the LSU seventh. With one out, Smith pestered the AU pitcher into several pickoff throws and on a 1-and-0 offering, Papierski unloaded on a fastball and sent a no-doubt line drive- into the right-field bleachers, his fifth this season.
“You try to get ahead in the count — 2-and-0, 3-and-1 — you’ve got to bank on a fastball coming,” Papierski said. “You’ve got to hit the fastball.”
The big LSU catcher did, erasing the memory of the strikeout.
“This was a huge team win,” he said. “We all did some good things and showed some mental toughness against a really good pitcher and really good team.”
Auburn got two more chances, an inning each against Hess and Newman. But all AU managed was two more singles and neither runner ever got to second base.
Newman struck out Daniel Robert for the final out to seal the series victory for LSU, notching his 8th save this year and a third in a row in conference play.
The series wraps up at noon Saturday, with Auburn’s Casey Mize (6-1, 1.39 ERA) on the hill trying to salvage a win. LSU will counter with freshman Eric Walker (5-1, 4.09).