STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Common sense might indicate most pitchers prefer nice, clean, uneventful innings.
LSU junior Alex Lange isn’t most pitchers, though, and that is true on an awful lot of fronts.
A week after, perhaps the most dominant performance of his three-year career, the Tigers’ junior ace had to navigate through choppier waters Thursday night against Mississippi State at Dudy Noble Field.
How did that sit with the hard-throwing right-hander?
“That’s when I love to pitch,” Lange said, a smile stuck in his face after he and relievers Zak Hess and Hunter Newman tied the Bulldogs in knots in a 3-1 series-opening victory.
“When your back is against the wall and you’ve got to rise up – I love that. It’s a good feeling. It’s like a drug to me. Getting out of that kind of stuff is an adrenalin rush for me.”
Lange was gritty-good for 7 innings, slamming the door on State after leadoff man Ryan Gridley popped the third pitch of the bottom of the 1st inning out of the ballpark. Hess logged a 1-2-3 8th inning and Newman recorded his 9th save by working around a one-out walk to dangerous slugger Brent Rooker.
The Tigers (37-17, 19-9 SEC) didn’t create a ton of damage offensively, but manufactured just enough to give Lange the lead and send Hess out with a little more margin of error.
Nine-hole batter Zach Watson drove in two runs with a 4th-inning single and a sacrifice fly in the 8th, while fellow freshman Josh Smith forged a 1-1 tie in the 4th with a bases-loaded fly ball after Nick Coomes squeezed a single between a pair of Konnor Pilkington walks.
The victory means LSU will at least tie for the West Division championship and can win that side of the SEC outright with a win Friday or Saturday. With Kentucky’s 12-4 triumph at Florida, the Tigers, Wildcats and Gators are tied for the overall league lead. LSU would win the SEC with a sweep and a split between UK and Florida.
Before any of that could even begin to get unpacked, the Tigers had to figure out a way past the Bulldogs (34-20, 17-11), who can still tie LSU for the West title with two wins.
Gridley’s homer put the Tigers behind the 8-ball early and Pilkington was nasty, although not razor-sharp from the outset.
The big southpaw sidestepped trouble in the 1st inning by striking out Coomes with two runners on. LSU had a shot to draw even in the 3rd inning when Kramer Robertson pumped a one-out single to center field, Cole Freeman beat out a fielder’s choice to keep the inning alive and Antoine Duplantis drove a single toward the right-center field gap.
The speedy Freeman raced from first to third without a hitch and ran through third-base coach Nolan Cain’s stop sign as right fielder Tanner Poole scrambled to the ball. A relay throw to second baseman Hunter Stovall was on the money and Stovall’s heave to the plate to Josh Lovelady pulled the catcher up the third-base line a bit.
Freeman swerved around Lovelady to avoid a collision but missed the plate in the process. Lovelady tagged Freeman for the out, but LSU coach Paul Mainieri disputed the play and asked for a replay to see if Lovelady had blocked the plate or jutted his left elbow out to affect Freeman’s path.
The play stood and the Bulldogs stayed in front 1-0, but that changed the next inning.
Pilkington walked Greg Deichmann to begin the 4th inning and Coomes battled back from an 0-and-2 count, laid off a high fastball on 2-and-2, worked the count full, fouled off a pair of offerings and then jerked a single through the left side of the infield.
Beau Jordan worked Pilkington for a similar at-bat and walked to load the bases to bring up Smith, who also fell behind 1-and-2 before hammering a ball to Jake Mangum to plate Deichmann. Pilkington retired Michael Papierski on a foul pop but Watson got the count full and punched a single up the middle just past Gridley at shortstop for a 2-1 LSU advantage.
"We knew he was going to go out there and throw a lot of fastballs," Watson said. "We looked for it the whole game. We didn't find the gaps as much as thought we would, but we hit him hard and got him out of there."
Staked to the lead, Lange kicked into a different gear.
He struck out the side in the Bulldogs’ 4th, needing only 12 pitches to do so. Lange cruised through the 5th by working around Rooker’s two-out single – he reached base three times but never with anybody on base.
Things got hairy, and apparently appealing, for Lange in the 6th and 7th innings.
With one out in the 6th, Hunter Vansau legged out an infield single to deep shortstop and Lange walked Lovelady and Luke Alexander to fill the bases. Unfazed, Lange struck out Poole and ended the inning by getting Stovall in a liner to right field.
Gridley opened the next State inning with a single before Lange got two outs on fly balls, the second moving Gridley into scoring position with the potential tying run. Brown walked with Lange pitching carefully to him but then Vansau also drew a free pass to again load the bases. Lange reached deep to blaze two fastballs past Lovelady and then snapped off a nasty breaking ball for strike 3.
In 18 bases-loaded situations this season, opposing batters are 0-for-17 against Lange with 12 strikeouts and one walk.
"Everybody talks about clutch hitting, but there is also such a thing as clutch pitching," Mainieri said. "Alex Lange is the definition of clutch pitching.
“Alex got some big outs (Thursday). He competed with everything he had. He’s going to get a good night’s sleep (Thursday night).”
Hess and Newman made sure their teammate also got his 7th win.
After Lange exited following 125 pitches, Hess took over and mowed down the bottom third of the Bulldogs’ order with a pair of strikeouts.
“When you have a guy who throws his butt off like he did, you have to do whatever possible to make sure he gets the win,” Hess said. “That’s pitching right there. That’s the definition of it. He competed his heart out. I just wanted to keep our team in a position to keep it going and get the ball to Hunter Newman.”
Newman got Gridley to keep the leadoff man off base in the 9th, walked Rooker and then ended the minor threat with a fielder’s-choice ground ball and a strikeout on a sweeping curveball against Brown.
State managed only 6 hits, was 0-for-13 with a runner on base, 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 2-for-11 with two outs.
“LSU played their A-game and they had their ace on the mound,” first-year Bulldogs’ coach Andy Cannizaro said. “He did exactly what he’s made out of – a competitor who battles and makes you beat him. (Thursday) we weren’t able to step up to the plate and pick up a big hit with runners in scoring position.”
Game 2 is slated for 6:30 p.m. Friday. LSU will send senior Jared Poche (8-3, 3.16 ERA) to the mound against State freshman righty Denver McQuary (2-2, 3.89)
Paul Mainieri after Game 1 win over Mississippi State
Alex Lange talks LSU's win over Mississippi State in Game 1
ON DECK | LSU at Mississippi State
Game 1 | LSU 3, Mississippi State 1
Game 2 | 6:30 p.m. Friday
Game 3 | 3:30 Saturday
WHERE: Dudy Noble Field | Starkville, Miss.
RECORDS: LSU 37-17, 19-9 SEC; Mississippi State 34-20, 17-11
RADIO: 98.1-FM (Baton Rouge)
TV/LIVESTREAM: SEC Network+, WatchESPN.com
ON THE WEB: TigerBlitz.com
TWITTER: @RandyRosetta, @LSUBaseball
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS
Friday | LSU, Sr. LH Jared Poche (8-3, 3.16 ERA, 79.2 IP, 50 SO/25 BB, .231 OBA) vs. Mississippi State, Fr. RH Denver McQuary (2-2, 3.89 ERA, 39.1 IP, 31 SO/32 BB, .215 OBA)
Saturday | LSU, Fr. Eric Walker (6-1, 3.77 ERA, 74 IP, 58 SO/19 BB, .232 OBA) vs. Mississippi State, TBA