Saturday started – and ended – with spectacular pitching for LSU.
Of course, it was not the time or place for anyone to expect something special from the Tiger staff.
Not thirty minutes into the opening game against Georgia, heavy rains forced a four-hour and 27-minute delay. Unfortunately for head coach Paul Mainieri and his crew, the opening skies halted a seven-run first before the Bulldogs could make it out of the frame.
“That was really big for us, because we had not been able to jump out on anyone like that yet,” said LSU right fielder Jared Mitchell. “It was especially big for Daniel [Bradshaw], because he was able to just sit back and relax.”
Easier said than done.
Bradshaw, who entered the day with a 3-0 record and 3.62 ERA in 21 appearances, had not lived up to expectations on the year.
Hoping to crack the starting rotation prior to the season, the sophomore stumbled out of the gates after battling an elbow injury in the opening weeks.
When Austin Ross took hold of the Sunday starter role, Bradshaw slipped into bullpen oblivion – putting together just three starts the rest of the way.
With everything on the line for the Tigers in Hoover, however, the right-hander looked like one of the staff’s best arms.
Picking up after the delay, Bradshaw tossed a three-hit, complete-game shutout for the 16-0 win.
“I don’t think that I ever have had to warm up, wait over four hours, warm up again and then go start seven innings of ball,” he laughed. “I felt amazing though, so maybe I should just pitch out of rain delays from here on out.”
Of course, Bradshaw is the first to admit that it is easy to make light of the situation when you are on the winning end of the conversation.
That being said, he remained all smiles.
“I just wanted to come out and keep us alive, and I got it done,” Bradshaw said. “I had not had a performance like this all year, and in the delay I went back to the hotel and really thought about things. I used it as a time to make sure I was focused on the task at hand, and I got out here and put it all together.”
The Tiger bats – which provided the most comfortable of cushions for Bradshaw– scattered fifteen hits on four Bulldog pitchers to secure the ten-run rule after seven.
Everything seemed to be going right at the dish, even for the struggling Bayou Bengals.
Freshman Austin Nola, who entered the day batting .216 in his 22 starts, was a career high 3-of-5 with a pair of RBI – highlighted by a first inning triple that dug the dagger into Bulldog starter Alex McRee.
Despite the win, the attention of the Bayou Bengals shifted rather quickly.
LSU would have to beat Georgia – who came into the day undefeated on the week – once more before moving on to Sunday’s title bout against Vanderbilt.
Enter Nolan Cain.
The senior – who was 4-0 with a 4.94 ERA in 15 appearances prior to the start – hit the mound with a mission.
Five innings later, the right-hander walked off to a standing ovation from the Tiger faithful.
Cain allowed two runs on three hits in 5.1 innings of work. One better, after giving up a run in the opening frame, the senior retired 14 straight batters.
Locked into a zone that he could not break out of, the stat line came as a surprise to the Tiger right-hander.
“Fourteen in a row?” Cain said with a look of disbelief following the performance. “I had no clue. That first inning I got away from my game, but once I got into the jam I just pitched, pitched, pitched. In the second, third and fourth inning, I can’t recall missing a spot.
“14 in a row is probably the most I have ever retired in my life.”
LSU tied the game 1-1 in the third by way of – no surprise – a Blake Dean double, scoring Ryan Schimpf from first.
After threatening in the fourth, the Tigers struck again in the following frame to take the lead. Following a pair of walks, Micah Gibbs, on his only hit of the day, singled through the left side to score Schimpf and Leon Landry – giving LSU the 3-1 advantage.
“I will take one hit a game if it is that big for us,” Gibbs laughed. “It really sparked me because I was able to help Paul out, because a two-run cushion is invaluable. For me to get the hit, also, is something that strengthens the relationship I have going with whoever is on the mound. It was really special for me.”
Refusing to fall too far behind the eight ball, Georgia’s Zach Cone cut the lead to one in the sixth, scoring from second base on a Bryce Massanari single.
That would end the night for Cain, seeing Chad Jones and Paul Bertuccini finish off the frame.
“Nolan pitched the game of his life,” Mainieri said. “When I see him in 15 years and I am bouncing his kid on my lap, we are going to talk about his magical night against Georgia.
“From Cain’s performance to Bradshaw’s, this is what college athletics is all about,” he added. “That was probably the most fun I had coaching all year. The kids were just so excited.”
In the seventh – which, as a result of the rain, served as the game’s final inning – Nola turned a double play that would put the exclamation point on the day’s events. One Georgia foul out later, the Tigers had secured the 3-2 win.
Leon Landry, whose highlight reel, diving catch was the talk of his week, said that there was little doubt in the Tiger clubhouse as to what the outcome of the day’s games would be.
“We knew for a fact that we were going to win, no doubt in our mind,” he said. “The rain and facing elimination did not faze anyone. We came to take care of business. This team has some magic, so keep watching for us.”
LSU will take on Vanderbilt at 12 p.m. in Sunday’s championship game.
“It would be nice to beat them since they gave us the loss, but it would be nice to beat anyone,” Mainieri said. “I am just glad our team is playing with confidence. We are putting it all together right now.”