Here’s the thing about baseball in June. It can be ugly, there can be jitters and upsets happen.
So finding a way to win – any way to win – is the ultimate goal.
No matter what the process feels, looks or smells like.
Red-hot LSU staggered through the first several innings against Texas Southern in an NCAA Regional opener at Alex Box Stadium and looked bad, especially on defense – an area where the Tigers have been so dominant all season.
Staring at an unprecedented stunner, LSU roared to life on offense with three four-run innings and stormed past TSU 15-7.
With a 12th win in a row, LSU (44-17) will take on Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. Saturday in the second round. The Lions (37-20) seized advantage of seven Rice errors to pull away for a 12-6 victory in the later game on Friday.
The bottom third of the LSU batting order was again magnificent: Josh Smith was 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles, two runs and an RBI, Michael Papierski chased home four runs with a single, sacrifice fly and pivotal two-run home run and Zach Watson belted a pair of homers and notched 4 RBIs to spark the come-from-behind victory.
That LSU was in a spot to have to rally was a direct result of its most shoddy defensive performance of the season: 5 errors that led to six unearned runs and prevented Jared Poche from achieving a milestone.
Texas Southern led 3-0, regained the lead 7-5 and didn’t seem completely subdued until sophomore Caleb Gilbert started a train of three relief pitchers who suffocated the Tigers from the SWAC over the last 4.2 innings.
Ugly? Yep. But there was no upset, givign LSU a 28th consecutive regional-opening triumph, and that was where the focus was afterward.
“You know, we've been good on defense … all year, and we're going to have those couple games,” Papierski said. “We're just going to flush it and move on to the next one. We're just glad it's over. Defensively we struggled a little bit (Friday), but offense, we swing the bats well, and we'll be ready to go (Saturday).
Added LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who was understandably flummoxed by the path his team took to a regional-opening win, “Sometimes you think the game is easy because you play so well. I mean, we've played well for an extended period of time now. (Friday) was just one of those days where – I think it was my fault more than anybody's. There was so much talk, who is he going to pitch? If he pitches Poche, is he going to get him out of the game early so we can have him available on Monday in case we need him? As though there wasn't even an opponent we had to go out there and play against.”
TSU’s Kamden Dukes and Camacho roped consecutive singles to begin the 1st inning and Watson misplayed the second ball in play to put runners at second and third. Poche walked Gaudencio Lucca to load the bases, got a strikeout and then induced what looked like a potential double-play ball.
But Smith took a bad angle on the grounder from third base and when shortstop Kramer Robertson scooped it up and tried to get the out at first, first baseman Nick Coomes was nowhere near the bag for an error that allowed a second run to score.
“I like the way we started the game,” Texas Southern coach Michael Robertson said. “Obviously we had a lot of energy, and I thought that was very important for us to get off to a good start so we could relax our starting pitcher and we did that. We put some really good swings on who I thought was one of the best pitchers in the nation (Poche). We did a really good job of creating pressure early on.”
That pressure remained in the second, as did LSU’s defensive struggles, and that led to a 3-0 TSU lead.
With two outs, Dukes scrambled to second base when Smith gathered in a routine grounder and overthrew first base for an error. Jose Camacho, who was 3-for-4, rifled an 0-and-2 Poche offering through the middle for an RBI single.
LSU woke up about then, especially in the batter’s box.
Texas Southern starter Anthony Martinez issued a one-out walk to Coomes and hit Smith with two outs to create trouble and LSU seized advantage when Papierski rolled an RBI single through the left side to close the gap to 3-1.
Watson worked the count to 2-and-2 and then blasted a pitch high and away toward left-center field that carried over the fence for a three-run home run and 4-3 LSU lead.
“I didn't think it was going (out),” Watson said. “I rounded the bag and saw it went over, and I was very pumped up and very excited. To get those runs in, it was a big part of it.”
The lead grew to 5-3 in the 3rd when Cole Freeman smacked a leadoff triple and Greg Deichmann drove him home with a single. Unfazed, TSU answered back with four runs in the 5th inning, aided by two errors on Robertson.
The second was especially painful – pinch-hitter Jose Cabreja’s tailor-made grounder to short rolled through Robertson’s legs to score a pair and vault Texas Southern back in front. Horace LeBlanc chased in another run for a 7-5 lead and what seemed like a load of momentum.
“There were things I saw (Friday) that I haven't seen all year, maybe in a few years,” Mainieri said. “I don't know if it was focus. I don't know if it was guys were a little tight, you know, because being back home. We haven't played here in a while in front of our crowd. Or just say that it was just funny baseball. Sometimes it happens.”
Once it did, LSU had to start hitting its way back into the game and that didn’t prove to be a problem.
Limited to four hits by diminutive soft-tossing Anthony Martinez in first 4 innings, LSU came alive. Freeman doubled to start the 5th, Duplantis followed with a single and after an intentional walk to Deichmann, Coomes flared an RBI single to right field.
Beau Jordan tied the game with a sacrifice fly, Smith whacked the first of his two doubles to put LSU in front and Papierski finished a four-run round with another sac fly.
Two innings later, Jordan got plunked to start the at-bat and he trotted home when Papierski launched a line drive into the right-field seats. Watson pounded the next pitcher inside the foul pole in left field for a 13-7 cushion.
“We were kind of pressing after that (first few errors),” Smith said. “We were playing the game too fast needed to slow the game down a little more. Getting used to the regional atmosphere maybe had a little to do with it. You just have to put your nose back in there and move onto the next play and we did that with our bats. We’ve been taking a lot of pride in our at-bats and not trying to do too much – just trying to get on base for the next guy.”
Getting the ball to the next guy in the bullpen also proved to be beneficial.
Poche exited with one out in the 5th and after that, Gilbert, Todd Peterson and Matthew Beck combined for 4.2 shutout innings with only two hits surrendered.
“(Mainieri) told me to go out there and attack the zone,” Gilbert said. “Their hitters were really battling hard and were hard to put away. When you had put-away counts, you had to execute your pitches because they were really battling.
“I was really just trying to get us back in the dugout and get some momentum on our side.”
Mission accomplished, both by Gilbert and LSU, albeit in lurchy fashion.
If there was a silver lining from the tougher-than-expected victory, it seemed to be an effective wakeup call.
“I just don't think we looked like a very well-coached team out there (Friday), and I'll take the blame for that,” Mainieri said. “Somehow, some way, we found a way to win the game, and that's the important thing. I just want our players to forget about this game as quickly as possible and get ready for (Saturday) night.”