The card was set for a big-time fight.
No. 3 LSU (37-13, 17-8 SEC) welcomed No. 9 Florida (34-16, 16-9), the top teams in the West and East, respectively.
Anthony Ranaudo (6-3, 3.10 ERA), who entered the game leading the SEC in strikeouts, took the hill for LSU head coach Paul Mainieri.
Gator skipper Kevin O’Sullivan countered with southpaw Stephen Locke, whose eight starts on the year are his only appearances.
Consistency from the plate, in the case of both teams, seemed to be on point.
The entire Florida lineup entered the night batting over .300, while the Tigers’ .312-team average is good for third-best in the conference.
When the night started out seeing the two sides trade hits, it came as no surprise.
Yet, as five hits and six strikeouts were scattered across the opening two frames, the feeling that the bubble would soon break was strong.
In the third, the scoring began.
LSU came alive as they smacked three hits off Locke, one for extra bases, to drive across a pair of scores.
Blake Dean, who was just getting warmed up on the night, grounded out to first base to score Mikie Mahtook for the game’s opening run.
In the subsequent frame, the Florida native followed up scores by Jared Mitchell and Micah Gibbs with a two-run home run over the right field fence, his 12th on the year.
Good news for Ranaudo, the lead stretched to six before the visitor’s got on the board.
“That was awesome,” he said. “It was just a matter of time before the bats came alive for us, and I think we are hitting as good now as we have all season. An early lead like that really helps our pitchers out, so I had some pressure off my back early.”
Gator left fielder Avery Barnes singled off the right-hander to start the fifth, followed by a Jonathon Pigott double to left center, which put runners on second and third with no outs.
As he had done all season, Ranaudo came to the rescue in crunch time.
The sophomore got the following two batters to ground out and strike out swinging, respectively, to get out of the jam with just one run allowed, bringing the scoring to 6-1.
The Tigers would equal that scoring total in the sixth, thanks in large part to the bat of DJ LeMahieu.
After Dean recorded his fourth RBI of the game on a single to right to start the scoring, LeMahieu launched a three-run home run to left field.
“I fake-bunted to start the at bat, and I saw the fastball,” LeMahieu said. “I was waiting on an off speed pitch, so when it came I jumped on it. I actually hit better against off speed pitchers, so tonight was a good night for me.”
LSU extended the lead to 10-1, which finished the night for Locke (3-1, 5.08 ERA) with nine earned runs on 12 hits over 5.1 innings of work.
Greg Larson entered the game in relief with LeMahieu at the dish, where he allowed the three-run shot to finish with one earned run on one hit in two-thirds an inning of work.
Ranuado, who did not allow a hit over the following two frames, finished the night with one earned run on six hits over seven innings of work to get the win.
“[Ranaudo] was on short rest after pitching last Saturday, so he was able to give us just what we needed,” Mainieri said. “I wanted to get him in and out, because he is sitting on another short week right now.”
Nolan Cain, who relieved the New Jersey native, struck out one batter over an inning of work in the eighth.
Buzzy Haydel, who made a similar late-inning appearance on the hill in last week’s blowout win over Tulane, struck out the side for the game’s final three outs.
Shortly after the game’s conclusion, news of Mississippi State’s 6-5 win over Ole Miss was announced over the Alex Box loudspeakers.
That result, paired with the LSU win, moved the Tigers into first place in the SEC with five games to play.
“This is the stretch run, and I think our kids smell a championship,” Mainieri said. “Everyone is out of school and now the focus is solely on baseball, and I think they feel it.”