Tigers take two of three from Vanderbilt

LSU dropped the first game of a weekend series at Vanderbilt, but rallied back for back-to-back victories late Saturday and Sunday to stake claim to the series victory. Since losing three straight SEC series, the Tigers (31-14, 12-9 SEC) have won three straight league series and have moved a game out of first place in the SEC West. Vanderbilt (29-14, 10-11) fell to fourth place in the SEC East.

LSU 3, Vanderbilt 0


At this point, when pitcher Greg Smith takes the hill for the Tigers, the most popular debate in the press box is how to calculate a scoreless innings streak.


As Smith masterfully shut down Vanderbilt inning-by-inning en route to the series-clinching 3-0 victory on Sunday, scribes discussed whether his scoreless innings streak should be 25 innings, or 25 and two-thirds, since he retired the last two batters in the third inning against Ole Miss following a home run. While a definitive conclusion was never reached, simply to have that discussion is an indication things are going pretty well when Mr. Smith takes the mound nowadays.


Smith pitched his second straight complete game, scattering seven hits while walking none. Smith has just two walks in his last three starts – all complete games. He struck out four and basically let his fielders (mostly outfielders) do the work.


"He filled the strike zone up with quality strikes," said LSU coach Smoke Laval. "When you don't walk anyone, you have a chance to win the ballgame, and that is what he did."


Slugger Nick Stavinoha provided all the offense Smith would need with a two-run blast in the third inning off Vanderbilt freshman David Price. It was Stavinoha's second home run of the weekend and seventh hit of the series. He later knocked in the third run with a ground ball to short that scored Chris Jackson.


"Stavinoha did a good job getting to the guy and giving us a two-run lead," Smith said. "It helps the pitcher relax, but in the SEC, you can't relax too much because there are some swingers out there."


Vanderbilt threatened in the first with two on and one out, but Smith got Brian Hernandez to fly to center (one of 13 fly-ball outs) and Warner Jones to pop to the catcher. In the second inning, Dominic de la Osa led off with a double and reached third on a bunt. Smith then struck out Matt Zellar and retired Antuan Richardson on a fly to left. After that, there was little for the home sellout crowd to cheer for.


"He's pretty good," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said of Smith. "He pitched two good weekends in a row. I think the thing that was disappointing to me was there were no surprises. He was throwing a fastball up there and we couldn't do anything with it. We had 13 fly ball outs. Not what you look for, but you have to credit the pitcher."


In his last three starts, Smith has allowed just one run in 27 innings. He has three complete games and three straight Sunday wins.


"I'm finding my groove here lately," Smith said. "I'm focused on hitting my spots."


Smith has 14 strikeouts in the 27 innings, but he and his coach are fine with that number.


"You don't have to (get a lot of strikeouts) if they hit that first pitch," Laval said. "I'm not big on strikeouts. It gets your pitch count up. They were swinging at the first pitch a lot and not getting great cuts at it. They had a lot of fly ball outs. We didn't have to field a whole lot on the ground, which is nice. We probably would have kicked it around. It worked for us."


"Whatever works," Smith said. "If they fly out, ground out, strike out, it doesn't matter to me. I have to get to 27 before they have more runs than we have."


LSU had chances to break the game open but ended up leaving 13 runners on base, including the bases loaded twice. The Tigers managed just five hits on the day against three Vanderbilt pitchers, getting a majority of their base runners courtesy of wild pitching and sloppy defense. LSU drew seven walks, had three hit batsmen, had one player reach on a passed-ball strikeout and another reach on an error. The Commodores managed to erase the majority of those free passes, striking out 12 Tigers on the afternoon.


"(Their pitchers) are too good," Laval said. "Our runners came because of walks and hit batsmen, like the first game (of the series). They are good. They have a good ballclub."


So does Laval, which has seen his team rise from the bottom of the SEC West to be a contender again. The Tigers are a game back of Alabama with a three-game home series against Kentucky up next. The Wildcats have the worst record in the SEC at 5-15.


"I never thought we were not headed in the right direction," Laval said. "I think we keep getting better, whether it is an offensive game or a defensive game or a pitching performance. We always seem to take a step forward. That is what I'm proud of."



LSU 9, Vanderbilt 3


The prospect of facing Ryan Mullins in Game Two of Saturday's doubleheader was not a pleasant one for the LSU Tigers. The 6-foot-6 lefthander from Vanderbilt was 3-0 with a 1.60 ERA in SEC action and had allowed just two runs in his last two starts. The junior was improving his June Draft status with each passing start.


But the Tigers offense was undaunted, ripping through Mullins right from the start and knocking him out of the game in the third inning. Spotted a 4-0 lead, lefty Clay Dirks made it stand up as the Tigers evened the weekend series with a 9-3 victory that was almost the exact opposite of the previous nine innings on Vanderbilt's Hawkins Field.


"Mullins is too good of a pitcher to let him stay in there," said outfielder Nick Stavinoha. "Once he gets in that groove … he is not 3-0 (in SEC play) for nothing. He has a great arm. And he locates well. He is a great pitcher. For us to jump out on top of him early is really what did it for us."


LSU attacked from the outset as the first three hitters of the game reached base and scored. Chris Jackson was hit by a pitch to lead off, then Jordan Mayer and Ryan Patterson both ripped doubles down the left-field line to give LSU a 2-0 lead. Patterson eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Will Harris to give the Tigers a 3-0 advantage.


Dirks put two zeros on the board off the bat, extending his scoreless innings streak to 11. LSU then knocked Mullins out in the third with a pair of singles by Patterson and Nick Stavinoha, and then a deep sacrifice fly by Clay Harris. With the score 4-0, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin lifted Mullins after 2.1 innings. It was the shortest outing of the season for Mullins and matched the shortest of his career. His final line: four runs, five hits, one walk, one hit batsman and just one strikeout.


"I think Mullins is going through a little (Lane) Mestepey thing," said LSU coach Smoke Laval. "He's a dominant guy. Supposedly he'll be a first round draft pick. He is going through a little bit of a funk. That is not supposed to happen, and I'm sure it will not happen again. I'm sure he will iron it out."


Dirk's scoreless innings streak ended at 11 when he allowed two unearned runs in the third. Dirk committed the error himself trying to get speedy Antoan Richardson at first base, then allowed back to back singles to Rucker Taylor and Alex Feinberg.


"Dirks did what he is supposed to do," Laval said. "He battles, battles, battles, and then he relaxes a little bit and gives them one, then settles down and battles, battles."


The Tigers answered right back after Vanderbilt closed it to 4-2 with a run in the fourth. Dustin Weaver led off with a walk, then moved to second on a tapper to the mound by Michael Hollander. With two outs, Mayer grounded to third base, but Vanderbilt's Alex Feinberg threw the ball away, scoring Weaver from second and giving the Tigers the momentum back.


Dirks indeed settled down, sprinkling three hits over the next three innings while keeping the Dores off the board. In the seventh, after 115 pitches, Dirks was pulled in favor of Jason Determann.


"I didn't want (Vanderbilt) thinking they could get some momentum going in there favor," Laval said. "I wanted them to know we have that left-hander coming in the bullpen."


Detterman slammed the door, while LSU added some insurance runs in the late innings, including an impressive solo blast by Stavinoha in the ninth, his 12th home run of the season. Stavinoha was 4-for-5 on the day with two runs scored and an RBI. He and Ryan Patterson combined for 10 hits during the doubleheader.


"No doubt, we're very good in the middle of the lineup," Laval said. "Jordan Mayer (2-for-4) did it today, Patterson, Stavinoha. They are as good as anybody in the conference."


The Tigers proved they did not need much bounce back time, shaking off the first loss of the doubleheader in just 30 minutes.


"You can look at it two ways (when you lose the first one)," Stavinoha said. "We had a decision to make after we lost game one. Either bury our heads and throw in the towel or come out and kick and fight and scratch as best we can. We had a good first inning and we tried to keep that tempo throughout the game."


Dirks improved his record to 5-1 in SEC play and the Tigers are 11-1 when he starts this season.



Vanderbilt 9, LSU 4


And things were going so well.


LSU entered the Vanderbilt series on a five-game SEC winning streak and had pitched 23.1 consecutive scoreless innings. Neither of those streaks would continue.


The scoreless inning streak ended in the second inning, the winning streak after the ninth as LSU dropped the series opener to Vanderbilt 9-4.


"They were better than us," said LSU coach Smoke Laval. "Bottom line, they outplayed us. That's all."


The opener was delayed a day due to threatening weather in Nashville on Friday night, though the heavy storms never materialized until about 10 p.m. Nevertheless, the game was pushed to Saturday as part of a doubleheader starting at noon.


LSU's day started earlier than expected, however, as 18,000 runners for the Music City Marathon lined up for the 7 a.m. start just outside the Holiday Inn Select on West End Ave. Between the 5:30 a.m. rehearsal of ‘God Bless America' and the actual race start at 7, there was plenty of pre-dawn noise and several Tigers did not need the wake-up call from the front desk.


Starting pitcher Lane Mestepey struggled once again, giving up six runs in just 2.2 innings of work as LSU fell into a 6-2 hole in the third inning. Mestepey gave up five hits, three walks and hit two batters before being pulled in favor of Eric English.


"He got hit a little bit," Laval said. "He'll probably struggle a couple of more times, too."


Mestepey's spot atop the rotation for SEC games is not in question. Laval insists Mestepey will stay the Friday night pitcher for the Tigers despite his recent struggles.


"It is like a guy hitting .088, and someone asks, ‘Is he still going to go in and hit?'" Well, if I had somebody that was better, don't you think I would put him in there?" Laval said. "Yes, Mesty is going to pitch on the weekends."


Mestepey has not posted a victory since beating Georgia on March 18. Since that game, the senior is 0-5 with an 8.29 ERA. He has surrendered 28 runs is 31.1 innings and hit five batters in his six starts.


"I have not been pleased with my outings so far in the last five or six weeks," Mestepey said. "Hopefully I can figure out what's going on and change it. I think I have it figured out in the bullpen, and then I get in the game and I'm missing my spots by two feet. It is frustrating."


Mestepey is glad he will have an opportunity to work out his troubles and stay in the SEC rotation.


"I know (Laval) has confidence in me and I've been around a while," he said. "At the same time, we've got some guys that can go out and win. I think once I get a ‘W', everything will turn around."


Despite Mestepey's struggles, however, LSU was still in the ballgame thanks to a strong effort from English. The freshman retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced and allowed LSU to creep back into the game. Ryan Patterson clubbed his career-high 17th home run in the sixth inning to close the gap to 6-3, and Matt Liuzza doubled home Will Harris in the seventh to make it 6-4.


But English was lifted in the bottom of the seventh after a single and walk, and both those runs eventually scored, along with another run that was charged to Jordan Faircloth.


"(English) still doesn't throw enough strikes yet, but he was pitching on the road," Laval said. "But he did his job. He didn't really pitch as much as he tricked them. It is tough when you are on the road and you are behind. He did his job."


The Tigers couldn't threaten in the eighth or ninth and went down to defeat. Fortunately, they had just 30 minutes to mull the loss before taking the field for a chance at redemption in Game Two.


Jensen Lewis picked up the win for Vanderbilt and improved to 7-2 on the year, while Stephen Shao went 2.2 innings for his second save of the year.


Tiger pitching held the top three spots in the Vanderbilt lineup to an 0-for-13 afternoon, but the four-five-six hitters scored all nine runs on six hits and three walks. Freshman shortstop Dominic de la Osa went 3-for-4 with three runs and three RBIs.


Patterson and Nick Stavinoha had two hits apiece for the Tigers. Neither team committed an error, the first time in 18 games that had happened for LSU.

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