LSU poised for SEC showdown with Tennessee

Who'd a thunk it? Heading into a weekend series with the Tennessee Volunteers, the LSU Tigers are in a position to move into first place in the SEC and contend for a league title many thought wasn't possible just a few weeks ago.

Sitting atop the SEC Western Division standings in a tie with Alabama, the Tigers (33-16, 14-10 SEC) will host eastern division leader Tennessee (35-14, 15-8) this weekend at Alex Box Stadium. The Volunteers swept South Carolina last weekend while LSU took two of three from Kentucky.


The Tigers have been nipping at Alabama's heels in the western division race and managed to pull even with the Crimson Tide (34-16, 14-10 SEC) after Mississippi State took two of three from Bama in Starkville last weekend.


LSU did record the series win over the Wildcats last weekend, but it did not come without plenty of drama. Lane Mestepey moved a step closer to the LSU career victories record notching a 6-5 win over Kentucky on Friday. However, the Tigers were forced to overcome a 4-0 deficit in doing so. Nick Stavinoha's three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth propelled LSU to the victory.


Saturday, the Tigers did something they had done only once before in 247 games under the leadership of Smoke Laval – Wildcat pitching failed to strike out a single LSU batter. However, Kentucky took advantage of two, three-run home runs as the Wildcats roughed up Clay Dirks in a 7-1 win over LSU.


On Sunday however, it was business as usual.


A shoe-in for SEC Pitcher of the Year honors, Greg Smith improved to 8-2 on the year. Entering the game with a streak of 25.2 scoreless innings including two straight complete game shutouts, Smith pitched 6.2 quality innings notching the victory.



LSU 8, Kentucky 3


Third baseman Chris Jackson drove in two runs and left-hander Greg Smith turned in six-plus quality innings on Sunday to lead No. 8 LSU to its fourth straight Southeastern Conference series win, 8-3, over Kentucky at Alex Box Stadium.


The Tigers have now won nine out of their last 11 conference games and improved to 4-2 on the season in rubber games. The Wildcats (24-22, 6-17) lost their seventh straight series to LSU and are winless in series at Alex Box Stadium.


Smith (8-2) entered Sunday's contest with three straight complete games to his credit and a scoreless innings streak of 25.2. Despite yielding three runs, two of which were earned, the junior was solid for 6.2 innings. He allowed six hits, walked two and struck out seven.


"(Smith) threw okay -- good enough to win," said head coach Smoke Laval. "He competed and didn't give in and kept us close. He got a little bit tired there late, and we tried to get an extra inning out of him."


Kentucky freshman Andrew Albers (4-5) suffered the loss and was tagged for six runs (three earned) on eight hits in five innings of work. Albers walked four and struck out two.


On Saturday, LSU tagged many hard-hit balls that were right at Kentucky defenders. On Sunday, the Tigers' hits found holes and LSU was aided by three errors.


Clay Harris and Blake Gill each tallied two hits and drove in one, while Nick Stavinoha extended his hitting streak to eight games with his two-hit game. Jackson drove in his two runs with a single in the first.


Jordan Mayer, the Tigers' leading hitter on the weekend, led off the second with a double. Albers then issued back-to-back walks to Quinn Stewart and Matt Liuzza to load the bases. With two outs, Jackson rolled an opposite field ground ball in between the first baseman and second baseman and into right field, scoring both runners.


"Someday you hit the ball hard and it doesn't fall for you," said Jackson. "Someday you hit the ball hard again or soft, in my case, and it finds the hole. That is just the way the game is."


Smith worked the first three frames without surrendering a run. In the fourth, Smith gave up back-to-back hits to start the inning, threatening his consecutive scoreless innings streak.


Then John Shelby broke through with a RBI single and took second when Stewart misfired over the cut-off man to the backstop. Shaun Lehmann scampered home on the errant throw and got the Wildcats to within a run.


After 28.2 remarkable scoreless innings pitched, Smith's streak was broken up.


"My shoulder got a little tired at the end," said Smith. "It is kind of hard not to think about it (the streak) with it in the newspaper and everyone talking about it. I tried not to focus on it as much as possible and just focus on the Kentucky hitters."


Kentucky committed its fifth and sixth errors of the series in the fourth; both proved to be costly. Liuzza reached base to start the inning when right fielder Billy Grace mishandled his fly ball. Two outs and four batters later, Albers should have been out of the inning.


Stavinoha popped up to first baseman Michael Bertram, who misjudged the ball and allowed Liuzza to score. Clay Harris made the error hurt with a two-out single to extend the lead to 5-2.


Reaching the 100-pitch mark in the seventh, Smith tired and was lifted after allowing a RBI single to Ryan Wilkes. Jason Determann came in and recorded the final out of the inning with a strikeout of J.B. Schmidt.

Determann was brilliant again after working two perfect frames on Friday. The junior left-hander allowed just one hit over the final 2.1 frames en route to his second save of the weekend and sixth of the season.


Gill and Liuzza tacked on two insurance runs in the eighth with a double and single, respectively.



Kentucky 7, LSU 1


Kentucky built a 7-0 lead after four innings of play on three-run homers by J.B. Schmidt and Shaun Lehmann, handing No. 8 LSU a 7-1 Saturday.


Both teams collected 10 hits on Saturday, and Kentucky starter Aaron Tennyson (6-1) scattered seven hits and limited LSU to one run in five innings. He walked one and did not record a strikeout.


"We don't strike out at all, and we strike them out 10 times," said head coach Smoke Laval. "We hit the ball hard, so you can't change your approach. It is one of those games that is tough to swallow because you did a lot of things right."


Nick Stavinoha and Quinn Stewart led LSU offensively with two hits apiece. Ryan Patterson drove in LSU's only run.


Left-hander Clay Dirks (9-2) lost for the first time in his last five outings, surrendering both homers. Dirks went 3.2 innings, allowing seven runs (three earned) on six hits. He walked three and struck out five. 


A defensive miscue allowed the Wildcats to plate four in the second off Dirks.


Chris Jackson booted an inning-ending groundball from Ryan Wilkes, allowing a run to score and keeping the frame alive for the top of the Kentucky order. Schmidt wasted little time in taking advantage of the error by depositing Dirks' offering over the left field wall for a three-run homer -- the first of his career.


LSU faced an early 4-0 deficit for the second time in as many games. The score increased to 7-0 as Dirks labored into the fourth. With two runners on courtesy of a walk and hit-batsman, Lehmann blasted a three-run homer into the left field bleachers.


Two batters later, Dirks' day was over after allowing a two-out single to John Shelby.


Meanwhile, Tennyson avoided trouble with spectacular Wildcat defense on several hard-hit balls. The Tigers finally got on the board in the fifth on a RBI single by Patterson. With two outs and two on, Stavinoha lined out to left field, stranding the runners.


Tennyson was lifted in the sixth when LSU was presented with its best scoring threat of the afternoon. Clay Harris singled to start the frame bringing a pitching change to reliever Brock Baber. Will Harris greeted Baber with a single of his own, and the Tigers had runners at first and second with no outs.


Stewart then rolled a groundball to shortstop for a 6-4-3 double play. One pitch later, Dustin Weaver grounded out to third and the threat was over.


The eighth inning summarized the day for the Tigers. Patterson belted a fly ball to the deepest part of the ballpark -- at the 405-foot sign -- for an out. Clay Harris also looked to have a single up the middle, but Harris' ball ricocheted off of the pitching rubber right to the second baseman Shelby, who turned an inning-ending double play.


"We hit at least 15 balls right at them, especially with two outs and runners on" said Patterson. "It seemed like everything we hit was on the nose, but they were right there to make the play. Our goal is to win every series this second half of conference (play). We still have a shot to do that, so we are going to come out here tomorrow and hope to get the series win."


Baber qualified for his fifth save and faced the minimum in the ninth.



LSU 6, Kentucky 5


The LSU offense finally woke up in the bottom of the sixth when Nick Stavinoha's three-run home run cut the Wildcat lead to 4-3. The Tigers went on to score three more runs in the contest registering a 6-5 victory Friday night against Kentucky.


Stavinoha was an unlikely candidate for player of the game as he admitted that his first two at bats were "two of my worst of the year." But after Chris Jackson reached on an error and Ryan Patterson was hit by a pitch, the Tigers finally looked ready to cut into the 4-0 Wildcat lead. With a 2-2 count, Stavinoha deposited a Kalen Gibson offering into the left centerfield bleachers, putting LSU back into the game.


"I had two strikes and made an adjustment," said Stavinoha. "I did not make a stride and wanted to immediately pick the ball up."


At contact, Stavinoha still was unsure if the ball had enough to get over.


"I didn't think it had the right trajectory or backspin," said Stavinoha. "I had to look at the umpire two or three times before I realized it was gone."


Lane Mestepey picked up the victory moving his record to 6-6. Early control problems plagued Mestepey as he walked the first batter he faced. For the game, Mestepey issued four free passes, all coming in the first four innings.


Kentucky's brand of small ball proved effective in the early going.


After a J.P. Schmidt walk to open the game, a Blake Gill error on an Antone DeJesus bunt gave the visiting team two base runners. Michael Bertman's bloop single brought the runners around, giving the Wildcats a 2-0 lead.


"My early game problems stemmed from mechanics," said Mestepey. "I was going away from lefties and not following through. After we got back into the game, I wanted to turn it up a notch and keep them at bay."


Mestepey followed through on his word.


In the fourth, the senior hurler settled down and got into a groove that he rode until he was finally taken out in the eighth. In that four inning span, no Kentucky runner got into scoring position. However, the last batter he faced in the eighth hit a triple that caused coach Smoke Laval to go to the bullpen.


The stands gave Mestepey a fitting sendoff.


"I think even Kentucky was pulling for Lane," said reliever Jason Determann, who came on in relief in the eighth.


Mestepey went 7 1/3 innings giving up five runs (three earned) and walking four.


"I took a gamble leaving Mestepey in after he gave up the three walks; it paid off," Laval said. "It was graduation time for Lane and he grabbed the bull by the horns."


LSU picked up the tying run in the sixth, when Wildcat shortstop Ryan Wilkes committed two errors in one play, allowing Clay Harris to score, which knotted the game at 4-4.


Blake Gill manufactured two insurance runs in the seventh inning with a two run double down the first base line. Michael Hollander and Chris Jackson each scored giving the Tigers a 6-4 lead.


Kentucky picked one up in the eighth but Determann closed the deal. He went two innings, giving up no runs, and striking out three.

"I am just trying to help us stay in the SEC hunt," Mestepey said. "It does not matter to me. As long as we win, I am happy."

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