Freshmen lead LSU over Mercer, 9-6

Youth prevailed, literally, for the LSU baseball team against Mercer. On the strength of one-run relief pitching from true freshman Clayton Harris and a pinch-hit grand slam from true freshman Jason Vargas, the Tigers came from behind to beat the Bears, 9-6, in the second game of their series at Alex Box Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Taking over in the fourth inning for starter Lane Mestepey, Harris allowed three hits and one walk over 5.1 innings. The Slidell product shut out Mercer over the last four innings and gave the Tigers to mount a comeback after spotting the Bears a three-run lead in their first at bat and a 6-2 advantage in the middle of the fifth inning.

With Mercer leading 6-5 in the seventh, Vargas was inserted into the game with two outs and the bases loaded and launched a high-arching shot over the right field fence. It was the first career homer for the Apple Valley, Calif., product who had left LSU for personal reasons last fall and decided to re-enroll for the spring.

LSU (5-1) has two wins under its belt against Mercer (3-5) heading into Sunday's series finale.

"It's very difficult for freshmen to stay focused day-in and day-out," said LSU coach Smoke Laval. "I said all along we'd have to depend on four or five of these guys this year, and it was a big step for them to come up big today."

A redshirt freshman provided the first spark for the Tigers in the seventh inning prior to Vargas' smash. Rockey Scelfo, who was a defensive replacement for the injured Aaron Hill in the fourth inning, took a one-out offering from Mercer starter Brett Jarrett to the right field fence for a triple. After sliding into third well ahead of the throw infield, Scelfo pumped his fists and encouraged the crowd to get behind the Tigers' rally attempt.

"We needed something to get us going," said Scelfo. "Everybody came together at an important time, and we were able to come through in the clutch."

J.C. Holt then drew a walk against Jarrett, who had struck out the LSU side in the sixth, and ended his day after 6.1 innings and seven strikeouts. Jason Stone took over on the mound and allowed a sacrifice fly to Sean Barker that scored Scelfo. After stealing second, Holt scored on a pinch-hit single from Eric Weithorn.

Mercer made another pitching change after Stone walked Wally Pontiff and Matt Health. After first baseman Brian Jones was moved to the mound, Laval pulled Jason Columbus from the on-deck circle for Vargas. After working Jones to a full count, Vargas found the fastball he was looking for and put the Tigers into the lead to stay.

"I knew (Jones) wasn't warm yet," said Vargas. "He had just come in and didn't have much direction on his pitches. He hadn't even shown us his (curve). He threw one over where I could get at it. I saw it big and trusted my hands."

Thanks to the six-running inning, Harris took a new mindset into the eighth inning and faced the minimum thanks to a 6-4-3 double play on the heels of a leadoff single. Mercer went down in order in the ninth to give Harris his first career win as a Tiger.

"It pumped me up," Harris said of Vargas' grand slam. "I went back out knowing I had a chance to win the game instead of just keeping it close."

Harris struck out three and benefited from good defense, as the Tigers were able to record seven ground ball outs and take two Bears off the base paths. Mercer's at-bat in the seventh ended when catcher Darren Welch tracked down a pitch that eluded his mitt and tossed the ball to Harris covering the plate to tag out Bears' right fielder Mike Appalucci trying to score from third.

Harris had turned in a defensive gem of his own for the second out of the inning, making a leaping barehanded catch while covering first on a grounder from Jarrod Lynch.

Laval turned to Harris after Mestepey faltered in the early going. The sophomore lefty was sent home early Friday after requiring a flu shot, and Laval said Mestepey was not at full strength for his Saturday start.

"Lane's forte is throwing hard on the inside and he just didn't have the juice," Laval said. "He was throwing around 82 to 83 (miles per hour) instead of 87.

"Clayton came in and got it to work out. He put some balls into play and got good defense behind him."

Mercer touched Mestepey for three runs in the first inning. Jason Gaines started the game with a double to left center and scored when Mestepey made a throwing error trying to field a bunt single from David Harwell. The error allowed Harwell to move to second, and he scored on Kyle Levengood's single to left center. Lynch drove in the third run with a two-out single.

The Tigers answered Mercer's strong start with a single run in the bottom of the first on a sacrifice fly from Barker, who would see his team-leading average climb to .520 with a 2-for-3 performance.

Pontiff provided a sacrifice fly in the third for LSU's second run, but Mercer came back with two more runs in the top of the fourth. Daniel Hurst led off with a triple to the right field corner, and scored on a one-out single from Gaines.

A botched pickoff attempt allowed Gaines to advance to second, and he stole third with Harwell at the plate. Guarding against a possible bunt, the LSU infield played in and was not able to stop a Harwell hit from slipping through the left side. Gaines scored on the play for a 5-2 Mercer lead.

Mercer got Levengood to fly out to Hill in shallow left field for the second out. But shortly after making the catch, Hill collided with Heath and left the game with what Laval unofficially diagnosed a mild shoulder separation or ligament tear.

"I don't think it's going to be anything that will require him to undergo surgery," said Laval. "We'll just have to wait and see once the swelling goes down. It could be something that he will just have to treat as the season goes on."

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