Believe it. A two-run double with one out in the top of the 14th by cleanup hitter Conner Hale gave the #1-ranked Tigers the margin of Thursday victory. LSU improved to 39-7 and 15-6 SEC as they took the opener of this series.
Fitts wasn’t the only one in disbelief. Coach Cohen was left struggling to explain what must be the most baffling loss yet in a lost season. Because, for the last and then extra innings Mississippi State (23-23, 7-15) repeatedly had winning runs on base. Third base, especially.
But other than pushing a tying runner across in the ninth, everyone else was left within sight of home plate. “Our kids played hard tonight. We made some mistakes, they made some mistakes,” said Cohen, before offering a frustrated “There were some forces out there that don’t want us to win a baseball game.”
LSU had their own chances to take charge or finish things off much earlier. Only a completely-unexpected effort from the battered Bulldog bullpen kept things close for so long. Ultimately Tiger talent at the plate told, against a tiring Fitts.
Having held the 3-3 tie for four innings, Fitts ran into the top of LSU’s order in the 14th. Jake Fraley worked a leadoff walk and was bunted over. An intentional walk of Alex Bregman, the second time State didn’t dare throw to him, had two on for a double-play. But Fitts was running out of gas and wild-pitched both into scoring positions.
Hale made it count, dropping a drive in the right-centerfield gap for the winning RBI. “I just kind of ran out of pitches,” Fitts said. “I made a bad pitch, left it on a tee for him to do what he’s supposed to do.”
But Fitts (2-4) deserved much better than a losing decision. He worked 4.1 innings with the two runs on six hits after entering in the tenth with a Tiger on first. He was able to strand a pair on strikeouts that time, and work around hits in the next three frames as well. For the stint Fitts had three walks and two strikeouts.
This was after RHP Zac Houston had lasted an impressive 5.0 innings of his own in mid-relief, with two hits, a walk and five strikeouts. For a group that had taken a beating over so many weeks, this showing by the relief staff was a surprising change for the better.
“Our relief guys came out and did a really good job for us against a really good offensive club in LSU,” Cohen said. For that matter starter LHP Lucas Laster was reasonably effective over the first 4.0 turns, with three runs on five hits.
“We just went out there and competed our butts off,” Fitts said. “I felt Zac did an amazing job of keeping the game where it was. Our hitters got it back to a tie ball game.”
But not a winning one. LSU starter Jared Poche was able to work what could and even should have been a complete game. The lefty lasted the entire 9.0 opening innings and went into that final frame with a 3-2 lead. It was a two-out double by LF Reid Humphreys scoring 3B Luke Reynolds that tied things up and eventually meant extra innings.
Except, it should have meant a victory right then and there. After an out Poche was hit for consecutive singles by Reynolds and 1B Wes Rea. The big first baseman was run for by IF Matt Spruill, just in case somebody hit something good. Humphreys did, driving one deep to straight-centerfield. To the deepest part of the park and with the 20-foot wall, that is.
On second base, “I knew he crushed it,” said Reynolds. But he was worried about “a miracle catch” and began going back to the middle bag as Spruill came on hard from first. When Reynolds did start back in the scoring direction he was sure to make home safely.
Spruill should have too. Whether there was any delay at second base, or trailing Reynolds so closely he didn’t get a clean step on the third bag, Spruill went down hard after rounding. Hard enough it turned out to dislocate a shoulder, which was why he couldn’t scramble back ahead of the relayed throw.
“When I slid home I thought everybody was going crazy in the stands,” Reynolds said. “I turned around and saw that rundown.”
So instead of having at least a tie game and the winning run on third with one out, Humphreys was alone at second with two outs. He still could have scored after a walk, but DH Brent Rooker’s grounder headed for leftfield was knocked down by Bregman for just an infield single. Bases loaded, Poche got 2B John Holland to fly out.
Parker Bugg began the MSU 10th with a single and with two outs yielded to Zac Person for a walk and called strikeout of pinch-hitter Cody Walker. He could have been beaten in the 11th when SS Ryan Gridley singled with two outs and CF Jacob Robson running from second. The ball went directly to the Tiger leftfielder and Fraley’s throw easily got home ahead of Robson.
Person worked 2.2 total turns with three walks and a strikeout. Jake Godfrey (7-0) would replace him in the 13th and strand Robson at third base. So he was on-record after LSU took the lead, as Jesse Stallings got an in-order 14th and 12th save of the season.
Over four hours earlier Poche had gotten in some early troubles. Three-straight Bulldog singles in the opening inning along with a Fraley error led to two runs. Rea plated C Gavin Collins with a hit, and Humphreys drove in Reynolds on a ground-out.
Poche responded by outing ten-straight and 20 of 22 into the ninth.
Laster began better with a walk and two hits against him through three scoreless innings. In the Tiger fourth a Reynolds fielding error and Laster plunking began a comeback. Both runners were bunted along, where Hale could score on a wild pitch and Kade Scivicque be driven in by Danny Zardon’s single.
LSU took the lead in the fifth after a leadoff double finished Laster. Houston had Tigers on corners with an out before rolling a double-play from Scivicque that let Bregman cross for a 3-2 scoreboard. Houston handled that though, with four in-order innings.
That ought have made him the winner in the ninth. “The winning run is around third and is going to score and it’s not even going to be a close play at the plate,” Cohen said. “And he trips.” Along with Bregman’s stop and Fraley’s throw, the coach counted three should-have-beens to produce a victory his club badly, badly needs. Instead…further frustration.
“When those things happen to you, you just have to ask yourself what’s it going to take? But our kids gave an unbelievable effort.”
The 14 innings were the most played between Bulldogs and Tigers in their long rivalry. LSU’s Hale came up seven times, one too many for Mississippi State as it turned out, with two hits. Fraley was 3-of-6 as his team tallied 13 safeties, all but two of them singles.
State finished with 11 hits. Reynolds was 3-of05 with two runs, and Rea went 2-of-4 with a RBI before being pulled for a runner.
Leaving so many stranded Dogs is nothing new, though losing them at third and home were another twist of the knife. Still having that many chances to knock off #1 and get a needed win in SEC Tournament terms made another defeat…yes, frustrating.
“I think we did a great job,” said Fitts. “But it wasn’t good enough to get the win and that’s all that matters at the moment.”
LSU will come back Friday with unbeaten righty Alex Lange (7-0, 1.86) while RHP Preston Brown _5-5, 3.76) has the burden of trying to square this series. Game time is 7:00 for ESNPU telecast.