Despite a strong pitching performance by starter Bo Pettit, the Tigers nearly blew their fourth late-inning lead in as many games by allowing the visiting Mercer Bears to score four runs in the top of the eighth inning to make it a one-run ballgame.
"We're only playing seven innings tomorrow," LSU head coach Smoke Laval joked. "I don't think it bothers our guys too much, but I don't know how to explain it. It's one of those mental things. I'm going to make that a rule for the SEC. We'll just play seven and that's that."
Pettit (W, 1-0), who opened the game by retiring the first three batters he faced, had control problems over the next three innings, giving up three walks and three hits while striking out three. A double by Mercer right fielder Mike Appalucci roused the Tiger bullpen, but Pettit retired the next three batters in order.
"I never look down at the bullpen," Pettit said. "I just finally got my release point down, and when I found my fastball - when I could locate it - all my other pitches were able to work off my fastball. Luckily I was able to find it and get into a rhythm."
Pettit was nearly unstoppable from that point on, striking out eight before being chased from the game in the eighth. His 12 strikeouts tied a career-high.
"Bo is better than that," Laval said. "I think in the second inning he got into a ball-strike mentality instead of adjusting his pitches. He was thinking, ‘Gotta throw a strike, gotta throw a strike, gotta throw a strike.' And then he overdid it on his killer pitches.
"Don't get me wrong. When you can strike out 12 and the coach says he can be a little better than that, then that shows how talented he is."
Mercer starter James Morrison was strong as well, scattering six hits over 6.1 innings, yielding five runs (two earned), walking two and striking out three.
Due to the Tigers' lackluster offensive prowess in the previous weekend's sweep of Birmingham-Southern and a weekday loss to Southeastern Louisiana, Laval tinkered with the Tiger lineup. In addition to Hill batting leadoff, the most notable changes were that David Raymer moved from leadoff to the nine-hole, Sean Barker batted third and Dustin Hahn replaced Matt Heath in left field.
The Tigers (4-1) struck early, when Hill took first on second baseman Patrick Murphy's fielding error, reached third on a single by J.C. Holt and scored on Sean Barker's sacrifice to center.
"I don't think the lineup change had a lot to do with it," Laval said of the Tigers' increased output. "But you see Aaron Hill played a little more relaxed. He made some nice plays late, big-league plays. You saw him and Wally (Pontiff) and Raymer a bit more loose and having fun."
LSU put two more runs on the board when third baseman Wally Pontiff broke out of a slump in a big way. Coming into the game batting a frigid .176, Pontiff launched a two-run homer out of the yard to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead. Hitting sixth instead of his usual third, Pontiff deposited a 1-1 hanging curveball over the right field fence, driving in DH Jason Vargas, who had drawn a leadoff walk. Pontiff finished the night 2-for-3 with two RBIs and two runs scored.
"I feel confident that wherever I hit in the lineup I'll do well," Pontiff said. "It's just a timing thing. You have to get yourself going and get the timing of the pitches down. I knew sooner or later I was going to break out of [the slump].
"But tonight was Bo's night," he continued. "We rode his coattails. He pitched one of the best games of his life. I'm just glad we had a few good offensive spurts and played good ball."
The Tigers scored twice more in the seventh when Raymer slapped a one-out single to right and Hill drove a hard liner to left. Raymer scored from second when Mercer third-sacker Jarrod Lynch misplayed a grounder hit by Rocky Scelfo. Lynch committed his second consecutive error on the next play by throwing wild to first on a ball put into play by Barker, allowing Hill to score LSU's fifth unanswered run.
Then the old eighth-inning jinx struck.
The Bears (3-4) batted around the order, sending ten men to the plate and scoring four runs. Pettit struck out David Harwell on three straight pitches to open the inning, and had Kyle Levengood struck out as well, but a passed ball by catcher Dustin Weaver allowed Levengood to reach first. Pettit still appeared in control by fanning Drew Starke, but he served up a first-pitch homer to Appalucci to shorten the Tiger lead to 5-2. Back-to-back singles — a line drive by Lynch and a Jones blooper — prompted a visit to the mound by Laval. Pettit left the game to the rousing applause of the 7,200 fans at the Box with 7.2 innings pitched, scattering eight hits and yielding four unearned runs.
Reliever Weylin Guidry came in with runners at the corners and promptly surrendered a 1-1 single to designated hitter Daniel Hurst that plated another Bear run. Guidry walked Jason Gaines on four straight pitches and plunked Murphy to load the bases. LSU escaped the inning without further bloodshed when Harwell — the tenth Mercer batter of the inning — hit a chopper to Pontiff, who stepped on the bag for the force out.
Pontiff drew a one-out walk in the bottom of the inning and came home ahead of an Eric Wiethorn single. Pontiff, who took off on the pitch on the hit-and-run, was able to make it all the way home from first when Wiethorn, pinch-hitting for first baseman Blake Gill, slapped a single to center. The relay by the second baseman to the catcher was off the mark, and the fourth Mercer error of the evening allowed Wiethorn to take second. He scored two batters later on a Raymer single for LSU's seventh and final run of the night.
Guidry faced four batters in the ninth, allowing a hit before getting Lynch to pop out to third to end the game.