STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Of all the clichés football coaches love to spout, one that fits well most of the time is “take what the defense gives you.”
Seems to work out alright on the baseball diamond as well.
More specifically on Friday, LSU gladly accepted whatever the Mississippi State pitchers – the bullpen in particular – were willing to dole out.
Staggered by a three-run Bulldogs’ 5th inning that knotted the score, the Tigers shrugged it off and scored four runs in the 6th without a lot of offensive firepower required and pulled away for an 11-5 triumph at Dudy Noble Field.
LSU’s win secured the SEC West Division championship and puts the Tigers (38-17, 20-9) in position to claim the outright league championship with a third win over and the Bulldogs and if Kentucky beats Florida on Saturday.
“I’m sure there’s not too many people that predicted a month ago that we would be the Western Division champions, but we’re finishing strong,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said after his club nailed down the sixth division crown in his 11 seasons, the fourth with 20 or more league victories.
Added catcher Michael Papierski, who drove in the go-ahead run in the 6th inning and then helped salt the win away with a mammoth solo home run an inning later,
“We’ve been clicking and this is the time to click. We had a little bump in the road and we figured it out.”
To regain command Friday and log a sixth victory in a row and 11th in the last 13, all the Tigers’ hitters had to do was wait.
Because once State starting pitcher Denver McQuary ran out of steam and LSU dug into the shaky Bulldogs’ bullpen, things changed dramatically.
Josh Smith tagged a McQuary pitch off the right-field wall for a leadoff double in the Tigers’ 6th inning, moved to third on Beau Jordan’s perfect sacrifice bunt and dashed home when Papierski hit a vicious chopper off the mound and through a drawn-in infield.
Papierski took a first pitch for a ball and Mainieri called him over for a spirited pep talk.
“He just told me to swing the bat whenever I was ready to,” Papierski said. “I got a pitch I could hit and hit it hard back up the middle.”
That strategy was spot-on. State issued 11 walks and hit two batters, with LSU mixing in 8 hits and effective situational swings to hang up its most runs in a conference game since a 16-2 romp past Ole Miss on April 13.
“We knew going in that their pitcher had some streaks of wildness,” Mainieri said. “I told our guys, ‘Don’t go up there looking for a walk. Go up there and earn walks but be ready to hit.’
“We weren’t really stinging the ball, but as the game went on, I thought we started swinging the bat a lot better and we did what it took to win.”
Which included seizing advantage of the Bulldogs’ unwanted generosity.
McQuary, who battled well after surrendering three 1st-inning runs, got Zach Watson on a fly ball to right field and that was his last pitch.
With two outs, Trey Jolly came on and allowed the second of Kramer Robertson’s three singles and walked Cole Freeman to load the bases.
State coach Andy Cannizaro summoned Tristan Barlow, who threw six straight balls, walking Antoine Duplantis to force in a run and falling behind Greg Deichmann.
That was enough for Cannizaro. He brought in Jacob Barton, who threw a few strikes, but still walked Deichmann and Nick Coomes to force home two more runs before getting Smith to roll out to first base to end the softly inflicted carnage.
LSU’s four-run response to State pulling even proved to be game-changing damage.
“One of our big off philosophies is that you have to answer back immediately,” said Coomes, who batted three times in bases-loaded spots and chased in three runs. His clutch two-run flair double in the 1st inning gave the Tigers a 3-0 cushion.
“The longer you sit around and wait, the more confident they get. When they came and tied it up and this place was rocking like it does, we knew we had to answer. When we came back and scored a run it quieted this place and deflated them as a team. It was big for our confidence and even bigger for our pitcher because he knows he can come out and throw pitches knowing we’ll play defense behind him.”
The Bulldogs (34-21, 17-12) staged a mild threat to answer again against reliever Caleb Gilbert, who took over for Jared Poche.
Elijah McNamee walked and Josh Lovelady reached on Smith’s error to open the frame. Gilbert went to a full count vs. nine-hole batter Luke Alexander before getting a loud flyout to right field.
Mainieri went to Zack Hess with the top of the State lineup coming up and the freshman came up huge, striking out Ryan Gridley and slugger Brent Rooker – with a wild pitch scoring a run in the process – to keep the Tigers in front 8-5.
“It’s big playing behind a guy like that,” Coomes said. “When he shuts the door like that, it gives them no hope.”
Indeed, whatever fight State had left evaporated in the 7th when LSU tacked on three runs.
Papierski demolished a Barton pitch to right field for his 7th homer, Duplantis chased in a run with a bases-loaded fly ball to left field and Robertson sprinted home on a two-out wild pitch.
The rest of the plot line revolved around Hess.
Included in his outing, Hess also struck out Jake Mangum and Cody Brown – the Bulldogs’ three-hole and cleanup hitters – and retired Gridley and Rooker again.
“He goes out there and competes whether he has his stuff or doesn’t have it – and he definitely had it (Friday),” Papierski said. “He just gets ahead and works from there.”
The series and regular-season finale is set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Freshman Eric Walker (6-1, 3.77 ERA) will take the mound trying to lead the Tigers to the sweep. State will counter with Cole Gordon (2-1, 4.42).
Although weather could intervene in Starkville or Gainesville, the bottom line for LSU is that it has an enviable stranglehold on its destiny after taking the first two games against the Bulldogs to reach 20 wins in conference play and the division crown.
Not that any of the Tigers are ready to settle for less than one more notch in their championship belts before the SEC Tournament arrives.
“You come here to win championships,” Coomes said succinctly. “Every room in our facility has some kind of championship banner hanging up. You come here expecting to win championships and nothing less. When we come out here and play games like this, it’s what we want. That kind of pressure is a privilege and you have to make the most of it.”
ON DECK | LSU at Mississippi State
Game 1 | LSU 3, Mississippi State 1
--- INSIDE THE BOX: Tigers clip Bulldogs
Game 2 | LSU 11, Mississippi State 5
Game 3 | 3:30 Saturday
WHERE: Dudy Noble Field | Starkville, Miss.
RECORDS: LSU 38-17, 20-9 SEC; Mississippi State 34-21, 17-12
RADIO: 98.1-FM (Baton Rouge)
LIVESTREAM: SEC Network+, WatchESPN.com
ON THE WEB: TigerBlitz.com
TWITTER: @RandyRosetta, @LSUBaseball
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS
Saturday | LSU, Fr. Eric Walker (6-1, 3.77 ERA, 74 IP, 58 SO/19 BB, .232 OBA) vs. Mississippi State, So. LH Cole Gordon (2-1, 4.42 ERA, 38.2 IP, 42 S)/18 BB, .219 OBA)
SEC Tournament | May 23-28