If LSU stands atop the SEC at the end of May they will be the first club to win back-to-back conference championships since the 1996 and 1997 LSU teams.
That quest began on Friday with the first of three games against the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that LSU took two of three from in Fayetteville during the 2009 regular season. While the teams didn’t meet in the SEC Tournament, the Tigers were able to take both meetings from Arkansas during last June’s College World Series.
Then it was Anthony Ranaudo, who tossed six shutout innings in the second game in Omaha for a 14-5 win that put LSU into the title round. Yet, still battling soreness in his throwing arm, the Tigers were without the 6-foot-7 Ranaudo for the team’s first run-in with the Razorbacks this season.
Instead it was Austin Ross, a junior right-hander who was making just his third career Friday night start - and only second in a weekend series.
Through the opening three frames he was solid, allowing no runs on just one hit while striking out three. His support was also there. With two outs in the bottom of the second, Tyler Hanover drove a ball deep off the left centerfield wall. When Arkansas centerfielder Brett Eibner’s catch attempt went south, Hanover advanced to third. Four pitches later, Matt Gaudet sent a ball over the right field fence to give LSU the 2-0 lead. The home run was his seventh on the season.
“[Bolsinger] kept throwing sliders away, and I figured he would give me another,” Gaudet said. “I am feeling confident when I am in there, and now it is about just continuing to make things happen.”
In the top of the fourth the Razorback bats got to Ross, landing two-run home runs from both Andy Wilkins and Eibner. Headed into the fifth, Arkansas carried a 4-2 advantage that they wouldn’t let slip the rest of the way.
“Austin pitched well enough to get us the win,” said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri. “He threw five shutout innings, and then he gives up four in one inning.”
Over the next three innings, both sides remained scoreless. The Razorbacks threatened with a pair of runners to start the fifth, but a double play at second base helped Ross get out of the inning before damage was done.
Down two runs with one out and Landry at the plate, LSU attempted to put together their answer in the bottom of the frame. Yet, Mikie Mahtook’s failed steal attempt at second base halted any momentum.
“The way we were hitting, I tried to make something happen,” said Mainieri of the call. “I thought he would throw a breaking ball, but he went fast ball away. I was wrong.”
The night ended for Ross (2-1) after the sixth, taking to the locker room after giving up four runs, all earned, on eight hits. Ross struck out eight of the 26 batters he faced.
“I think two pitches really effected the whole ball game,” Ross said. “We have to find a way to win these close games. We have to do a better job in the later innings.”
Southpaw Jordan Rittiner was the first option out of the pen, where he retired the side in the seventh on just 10 pitches. When Andy Wilkins advanced to third after a leadoff double in the eighth, right-hander Michael Reed replaced Rittiner. After James McCann grounded out to Nola at shortstop, Eibner – who had already homered once on the night – sent a two-run bomb over the scoreboard in left field, effectively burying any chances LSU had at a comeback in the process.
Mike Mahtook’s ninth inning double down the right field line eventually led to one run taken off the lead, but the Razorbacks’ D.J. Baxendale used a pick-off pitch to second base to get Tyler Hanover for the game’s final out.
Rittiner’s final line was one earned run over 1.1 innings pitched. Reed went 1.2 innings and gave up one earned run on a pair of hits.
Bolsinger (3-0) got the win for Arkansas, going seven innings and allowing just two earned runs on four hits.
The sides will be back in action on Saturday at 3 p.m. for game two of the series. Sophomore right-hander Joey Bourgeois (2-1, 4.74 ERA) is set to take the hill for LSU, while southpaw Drew Smyly (2-0, 1.80 ERA) is the penciled starter for the Razorbacks.