Reaching the finish line in a baseball game with more runs is the obvious goal. Staying in front along the way and forcing a team underequipped with the necessary tools to keep pace certainly doesn’t hurt.
With everybody who stepped on the diamond chiming in, LSU followed a blueprint that worked the night before Saturday night when a series and regular-season finale against Mississippi State finally got rolling 3 hours late at Dudy Noble Field.
The wait proved worthwhile in an 11-7 victory that helped the Tigers scale a hurdle that seemed unobtainable a month ago. To finish off the sweep, LSU blazed through the final two games without ever trailing and erased ties in the ensuing at-bat in each game.
With a sweep complete over the Bulldogs, LSU (39-17, 21-9 SEC) claimed a share of the overall conference championship, buoyed by a 11-1 surge in league games the last three weekends.
The final triumph was emblematic of LSU’s timely emergence over the last month with the offense generating damage time after time while a once beleaguered bullpen rode to the rescue when freshman starter Eric Walker and recently reliable reliever Nick Bush wobbled.
The Tigers grabbed a 4-0 lead in the 2nd inning, ignited by Beau Jordan’s two-run home run, regained the upper hand immediately after State (34-22, 17-13) pulled even in the 3rd inning and kept increasing the pressure with all hands on deck: Everybody in the lineup drove in a run, everybody scored a run and everyone except Zach Watson produced a hit.
While the LSU offense pecked away at the Bulldogs like mosquito refusing to go away, two relievers the Tigers will have to lean on heavily in the postseason combined to choke off any chance State had of staging a patented comeback.
LSU plowed in front 9-4 with a three-run 6th inning with Greg Deichmann, Nick Coomes and Josh Smith supplying back-to-back-to back singles after a leadoff walk and a fielder’s choice. That flurry created two runs and Watson walked with the bases loaded to nudge the lead to five runs.
Bush logged a scoreless 5th after taking over for Watson, but dug himself a huge cavern the next frame when he walked the 8- and 9-hole Bulldog batters to bring up the dangerous top of the order. Bush struck out Ryan Gridley but surrendered a run-scoring double to Brent Rooker, followed by Jake Mangum smoking a two-run single through the middle that closed the gap to 9-7.
Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri lifted Bush and handed the ball to Caleb Gilbert. The hard-throwing right-hander extinguished the threat when he got cleanup batter Cody Brown on a fly ball that died a few feet short of a game-tying home run and zipped a called third strike past Hunter Stovall, who pounded a two-run home run in the 2nd inning.
Gilbert blazed through the 7th inning, striking out the side around a rare Cole Freeman error and then gave way to Hunter Newman.
By the time Newman entered, the Tigers had pieced together their third and fourth one-run innings to pad the lead to 11-7, making it a non-save situation. Sure didn’t seem that way, though.
The Bulldogs have logged 22 come-from-behind wins this season, including 10 of their 17 SEC triumphs. Newman climbed the hill locked in and mowed down all six batters he faced, starting with the top of the State lineup.
When Newman fanned Hunter Vansau to end the game, the regular season and LSU’s climb back from the middle of the SEC pack, the Tigers swarmed to the middle of the field to celebrate as their longtime West Division rivals looked on.
With the final win, LSU capped a sprint to the finish line that checked some impressive items off the season checklist as the postseason arrives:
- 21 wins vs. top-50 RPI teams
- 21 league wins
- 7 SEC series victories, 3 on the road
- Overall SEC championship for the fourth time in 10 years and a sixth West Division crown in that same span
Now the focus shifts to the SEC Tournament, an even the Tigers have dominated the last 9 seasons with five tournament titles. LSU is the No. 2 seed and will play at 1 p.m. Wednesday against the winner of an elimination game between Missouri and Texas A&M on Tuesday.