LSU survives tough Jaguars, 5-4

A hard-playing Southern baseball team gave cross-town rival LSU a run for its money, hanging tough with the top-seeded Tigers until a bottom-of-the-ninth single by Sean Barker gave LSU the edge, 5-4, in Game 1 of the NCAA Baton Rouge regional Friday afternoon at Alex Box Stadium before a crowd of 6,309.

Tiger second baseman J.C. Holt led off the ninth by lacing an 0-2 triple into the right-field corner. Southern head coach Roger Cador elected to intentionally walk Aaron Hill and Wally Pontiff, loading the bases to set up a force at home and avoid Pontiff's hot bat. Barker slapped a 1-1 offering from Jag reliever Duwon Day between first and second base to score Holt and give LSU its 16th consecutive opening-round win in NCAA regional play.


Holt finished the day 4-for-5 with a run scored, and all other Tiger batters hit safely in LSU's 15-hit performance.


"I was kind of going up there looking for a fastball in my zone," Holt said. "The first two pitches were on the black, so I knew I had to choke up and protect the plate. He made a really good pitch. I was just lucky to get my bat head down. The pitch was low and in, and I was just lucky to get down on it and hit it down into the corner."


Southern got an impressive performance from starter Josef Rankin, who at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds is built more like a defensive end than pitcher. Though he gave up double-digit hits, Rankin mixed a wicked breaking ball with a speedy fastball to keep the Tigers guessing and letting his infield do much of the defensive work. In 5 2/3 innings, Rankin yielded three runs on 11 hits, striking out four and walking two.


"When the seedings were announced, I told our club that Southern was definitely the best No. 4 seed in the tournament," Laval said. "So were we surprised? No, we were not. We knew our hands were full."


The Tigers (41-19) got a run in each of the first three innings to jump out to an early 3-0 lead. Despite a stiff wind blowing in from right, Pontiff hit his sixth home run of the year -- a two-out solo shot in the bottom of the first.


Catcher Chris Phillips added an RBI single in the second to plate Blake Gill, and Aaron Hill scored the Tigers' third run on Southern catcher Brandon Mason's throwing error. Excellent play by the Jaguars' middle infield led to a double play and pair of LSU stranded runners over those same three innings, effectively keeping the Jags (45-9) within striking distance.


And strike Southern did. The Jags rapped out four straight singles against LSU starter Brian Wilson. Theo Dumas and Fernando Puebla hit consecutively before Mason ripped a shot up the middle to plate Dumas and chase Wilson from the game. Reliever Jake Tompkins entered the game in quite a jam -- the bases full of Jaguars with nobody out and Southern's big gun coming to the plate. Second baseman Rickie Weeks -- a projected first-round pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft – ripped a hard liner to third that was nabbed by a diving Pontiff, who stepped on the bag for the force out.


The throw home, however, was not in time, and Puebla scored to cut the Tiger lead to 3-2.


"I knew Weeks was their big gun," Pontiff said. "I was guarding the line a little bit, because I didn't want a double to beat us. I was willing to give up a single. It was just pure reaction -- I just dove and let my God-given ability take over, and the ball found my glove. That's all I can attribute that to. You can't practice that play."


"The play Wally Pontiff made at third," Cador said, "was a back-breaker. When you're a championship-caliber team, you need players to make those plays. He did. He came up with (the ball) and he made several other fine defensive plays."


Buoyed by Pontiff's play, Tompkins proceeded to strike out Kevin Vital and inducing a Fred Lewis groundout to second to end the Jag threat.


"I knew coming in today that Southern was a good-hitting team," Tompkins said. "Coach Laval told me that there was no holding me back for the seventh, eighth or ninth (inning). At the fist sign of trouble, I was going to be in there. …They got me a little bit, and like (Tiger pitcher) Bo Pettit said, ‘One bad pitch can hurt you.' That's what happened. One bad pitch scored two runs."


"Smoke made a strategic move by getting (Tompkins) in there," Cador said. "He came in, made some good pitches, and we lost our concentration."


The lead changed hands in the sixth when Southern struck for two additional runs. Former LSU third baseman Trae Duncan singled to open the inning before Tompkins fanned the next two batters. A single to right by Puebla drove Duncan to third before Mason drove both of them home with a double high off the right-field wall to give Southern a 4-3 advantage.


Matt Heath, who was 0-for-3 on the day including a pair of strikeouts in his previous two at-bats, tied the game at 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh by driving a two-out, first-pitch homer up into the wind and out past the left-field wall.


Tompkins (W, 6-1) really only had trouble in his first two innings of work. After the inherited trouble in the fifth and the pair of runs in the sixth, the second-team All-SEC reliever faced only two batters above the minimum and had retired the Jags 1-2-3 in the seventh and eighth innings. In five innings he allowed two runs on four hits, striking out eight while walking only one.


"I'm hurting for my players," Cador said, "because they truly played well. They executed, they made the defensive plays, and we pitched well today. We had some areas where we didn't take advantage of opportunities. …We were down, we fought back and took a lead. LSU did what they had to do. They found a way to win."


With the victory, the Tigers are now 51-9 at home in NCAA post-season games and 18-0 all-time in home post-season games against Louisiana competition.

LSU will play in the winner's bracket at 3 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, facing UL-Lafayette. The Cajuns beat Tulane, 6-4, in Friday's night game at Alex Box, seding the Green Wave into an elimination game with Southern at 11 a.m. Saturday.

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