The Tiger baseball team couldn’t afford to lose Thursday night’s series opener against Mississippi State, not if they hoped to make the trip to Hoover, Ala. for the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week.
Sitting at 35-19 overall and 13-15 in conference play, LSU’s late season slide, which has seen the club drop 13 of their last 16 games, could still end the year early for the defending National Champions.
Fortunately for the fans that endured nearly four hours of back-and-forth baseball on Thursday night at Alex Box, the Tigers live to fight another day.
While the Bulldogs scored a run in seven of the nine frames and equaled LSU’s 17 hits, their run total came up one short of the Tiger total.
“It felt a lot like the (16-15 win over Vanderbilt),” said catcher Micah Gibbs, who went 3-for-5 and drove the tying run over the right field fence in the eighth. “We fought and clawed, and that’s what we knew we were going to have to do because we knew (MSU) could hit. Our offense helped us out.”
The Bulldogs powered out of the gates with back-to-back home runs in the first, seeing LSU starter Joey Bourgeois surrender runs across each of the first three frames on a night that ended before the right-hander could make it into the fourth.
All the while, the Tiger bats worked on trimming the deficit.
Six runs in the second turned into the biggest inning on the night for LSU, seeing Matt Gaudet belt a two-run home run to cut the lead in half before the Tiger bats reeled off six straight hits to add the next four runs.
Mississippi State retook the lead in the fourth behind Ryan Duffy’s sacrifice fly to center, which drove two runs across. The throw from shortstop Austin Nola was on time for Gibbs to make the tag on the second runner, but a bobble of the ball when Gibbs went to show the umpire his glove resulted in the go-ahead score.
Down 7-6, LSU moved back into the lead in the fifth when Nola sent a two-run single up the middle, scoring Gibbs and Blake Dean. A two-out double into the gap by third baseman Alex Edward scored Nola from third to bring the total to 9-7.
The Bulldogs then scored a run in each of the next two innings, setting the stage for a dramatic finish that saw a combined nine runs on two plate appearances by each side.
With the game tied 9-9 in the bottom of the seventh, Gaudet struck for his second home run of the night, a two-run shot off a full-count pitch from Bulldog starter Tyler Whitney, who lasted seven innings and allowed seven earned runs on 14 hits.
The long ball was Gaudet’s 18th home run and his third multi-homer game on the year.
“They were at critical times in the game,” said Mainieri of Gaudet’s pair of home runs. “There is a difference between a home run and a clutch home run. What he did was hit two clutch home runs.”
Two batters later, Edward sent his first career home run to nearly the same spot Gaudet’s landed, increasing LSU’s lead to 12-9.
Confident that the game was all but in hand, Mainieri handed the ball to Matty Ott, once considered the top closer in college baseball.
“You bring Matty in and you think we have the game in hand with our All-American,” Mainieri said.
Typical of the Tiger staff during the team’s stumble, Ott gave up a leadoff single, walked a batter and hit a batter to load the bases. Sam Frost drove across the first run with a fly ball before catcher Wes Thigpen drove in another with a base hit to left field.
After getting Jonathan Ogden to fly out to left for the second out, Ott’s night went off course once more, walking the Bulldogs leadoff man on four pitches to reload the bases.
About that time, Anthony Ranaudo, penciled in as the Friday starter, began to contemplate his worth on the bench.
Could the Tigers hold on without him?
Ranaudo didn’t want to wait around to find out.
“I laced up my spikes in the eighth and I went up to coach and told him I was ready to close,” Ranaudo said. “I had no plans of pitching before that.”
While Mainieri admitted that he brushed off Ranaudo’s initial offer, a hard hit ground ball that ricocheted off Ott’s foot for the game-tying RBI gave the headman a chance to reconsider.
With Ott limping, Mainieri sent Ranaudo to the hill.
“I didn’t think I would have time to even get him loose,” Mainieri said. “Matty getting hurt gave him the time to get ready.”
After hitting Conner Powers on the second pitch of the bat resulted in the go-ahead run coming across the plate, Ranaudo regrouped and got out of the inning, stranding three runners in the process.
“I knew I had to step off the rubber and regroup,” said Ranaudo of his thought process after hitting the opening batter he faced. “I couldn’t let it get any further.
“Once I got in the dugout I told everyone to get me a run, and they put up two.”
For their third and final comeback of the game, it could be argued that the Tiger veterans saved their best for last.
Gibbs provided the initial spark with a solo home run off reliever Caleb Reed to tie the score at 13-13.
After Reed walked Dean and gave up a single to Nola, Gaudet nearly came up with the hat trick on a blast to deep center. While the ball failed to find its way over the wall, the deep drive brought Dean, the winning run, across the plate.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the lineup for how they persevered,” Mainieri said. “I told the kids yesterday, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow with our pitching, and I don’t know what’s going to happen all weekend, but you guys have to take the attitude that you will do whatever it takes to win.’ We can’t sit around and complain that our pitching isn’t getting the job done.”
With two remaining spots up for grabs in Hoover, the win kept the Tigers stride for stride with Alabama, who defeated Tennessee 11-3 in Knoxville. The Tigers and Crimson Tide (32-21, 13-15) are tied for seventh place with two games left. Tennessee (30-24, 12-16) and Kentucky (30-24, 12-16) are tied for eighth.