Following Thursday night’s win over Alabama, the mood in the LSU (43-16) clubhouse was at a fever pitch.
Not just because they had avoided a disastrous two-and-out with hopes for a national seed in the NCAA Tournament on the line, but because the team’s leader – the heart and soul of the purple and gold – had not stepped off the bench.
Louis Coleman (11-2), the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year, got his shot Friday night against South Carolina (38-21) in the second elimination game in two day’s time for LSU.
No surprise to anyone who follows SEC baseball, the senior right-hander did not let the opportunity go to waste.
Micah Gibbs, who has been behind the plate on all of Coleman’s appearances in 2009, was at a loss for words as he stood in the Tiger dugout after the win.
“That guy was just locked in,” he said.
Coleman tossed eight innings of one run ball, allowing seven hits and no walks in the process.
“It was typical Louis,” said head coach Paul Mainieri. “I don’t know anymore words to describe that kid.”
A testament to his dominance, the Gamecocks managed to get past the third batter of the frame just three times against the Tiger ace. In those instances – coming in the fourth, seventh and eighth innings – they managed more than four batters just once.
“I just wanted to make it count,” said Coleman of his final appearance in Hoover. “I knew that I might have gotten the chance to come out of the pen had we gotten in trouble against Alabama, but getting the start today was what I wanted.”
Yet, there was more to the night than the senior’s performance.
The Tigers headed into the game with a 14-13 mark against southpaw starters, a stat that had raised question marks around the LSU camp throughout the year.
Through five frames, the Gamecocks’ Nolan Belcher had allowed just two hits – matching Coleman’s line.
Just as it looked like the evening would turn into an all out pitcher’s duel, Mr. Clutch – a.k.a. Blake Dean – stepped up to the plate with an answer.
With a single through the left side, the junior sparked a two-run sixth inning to give LSU the lead.
Micah Gibbs’ double to right center scored Dean to break the ice, followed by freshman Mikie Mahtook’s single up the middle to drive in the Tiger catcher.
“That inning was big because it allowed Louis to calm down and not have as much pressure on his work,” Gibbs said. “I knew that if we got some runs on the board then he would be in a great place, and we were able to make that happen.”
With the momentum building in the eighth, DJ LeMahieu hustled an error on a single by shortstop Bobby Haney into extra bases. Capitalizing on mistakes once more, the sophomore advanced to third on a passed ball before scoring on a wild pitch.
“There were breaks there, and it happened to both teams,” Mainieri said. “We just took advantage of it.”
Dean followed with the Tigers’ final score of the night, crossing the plate on a Sean Ochinko single through the right side – putting LSU out front 4-0.
The junior, who went 1-for-2 on the night with a pair of walks, said that manufacturing runs – not by way of the long ball – has helped him fine tune his game.
“Lately I have not been getting anything to hit,” Dean said. “They are throwing a lot of off speed stuff at me and walking me a good bit, so I just have to get out there and make it happen in other ways.”
The Gamecocks’ lone run on the night came in the bottom half of the frame, seeing pinch hitter Brady Thomas smack a solo shot over the right field fence – his first home run and RBI on the year.
Coleman returned to the hill in the ninth, giving up a pair of singles before handing the ball to left-hander Chad Jones.
Jones walked the only batter he faced, leaving the bases loaded for closer Matty Ott.
The freshman retired the first three batters up to the plate, earning his 14th save on the year. The mark tied the LSU single-season record.
“That kid is not a freshman anymore,” Mainieri said. “The way he pitched, with everything on the line, was just phenomenal.”
Coleman, who had to watch the final frame unfold from the dugout, had even higher praise for the baby-faced, right-hander.
“When I walked off the mound and knew that Matty was behind me, I had zero doubt that he was going to get the save,” he said. “He is not only passed the freshman stage, but he acts like he is a junior. I will even say he plays like a senior.”
Turning Wednesday evening’s loss to Vanderbilt into back-to-back wins over Alabama and South Carolina, the Tigers live to see another day.
Unable to tap into the weekend starters, Mainieri will look to the pen for answers to what could become a two-game day for LSU.
“This is a golden opportunity for someone to step up,” he said. “Daniel Bradshaw will get the start, and if he throws well I would think about starting him again next weekend.”
LSU takes on Georgia at 1:30 p.m. at Regions Park on Saturday.