LSU (42-17) advances to Saturday’s semifinals and single-elimination round. There they will rematch with either Mississippi State (41-15-1) or Florida (45-12) after the Gators finished off Alabama. Game time is a half-hour after the 3:00 elimination game between Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
Thursday’s defeat was a definite change of May pace for the Bulldogs. They had gone unbeaten in the month to now with a longer streak of 12 wins, 11 of them over SEC opponents en route to winning the outright conference championship.
Thursday was not exactly a champions’ sort of performance, though. Whether it was defending the field, all of it; not working the paths as usual; and most notably not getting production from the middle of the order, the Bulldogs did not look the same.
“There were a lot of little, tiny components we didn’t take care of tonight,” Coach John Cohen said. “Credit to them, they just played a better baseball game than we did. And Poche’ pitched a better baseball game than we did.”
That would be LSU starter Jared Poche’. LSU’s junior righthander has had highs and lows this season. Among the lowest low was the April evening Mississippi State knocked him around and out on the way to a 12-8 win in Baton Rouge.
In a neutral park, Poche’ (7-4) looked like the ace he was supposed to have been all along. “We beat him up a little bit at his place,” Cohen said. “And he really wanted this a little bit worse than our hitters did.”
State eventually managed seven hits off Poche’ in the 6.2 innings, with a couple of walks. There were only three strikeouts so Poche’ wasn’t blowing Bulldogs away. Yet production came too late and too little.
“Poche did a really good job tonight,” CF Jacob Robson said. “For the most part he shut down arguably the best offense in the nation. I think he threw all three of his pitches for strikes. And he had a steady mix which keeps hitters off balance.”
State didn’t scratch a run off the Tiger starter until the seventh inning, and it took an dropped fly ball off LF Reid Humphreys’ bat to get something going at last. The two-base error was followed by Robson’s RBI-triple to left-centerfield to end the shutout. Robson himself scored on SS Ryan Gridley’s ground ball.
But that was it, though Poche’ ran down and put three more Dogs on in the inning. None scored as righty reliever Parker Bugg entered to strike out 3B Gavin Collins. Bugg went the rest of the way with one hit and two strikeouts to get the fourth save.
State had planned to start RHP Dakota Hudson regardless of matchup, to keep the ace on-cycle for next week’s NCAA Regional. That it was LSU seemed promising because Hudson had been the winner, against Poche’, in that shootout. Hudson also came to Hoover on a five-SEC win streak of his own.
In one way this rematch mirrored the first round. LSU had hit him a dozen times in Baton Rouge, mostly seeing-eye singles. It didn’t matter because State scored and scored and scored some more. This time though the support did not show up.
“I think some things didn’t go our way offensively,” Robson said. “And some things went their way against Dakota. They had a lot of infield hits, a lot of balls off the end of the bat or got jammed and it ended up being hits.”
Hudson (9-4) allowed the first four runs on nine hits with a walk and six strikeouts in his 5.0 innings. “I thought Dakota had good stuff early, he competed,” Cohen said. The coach also noted that of the 27 Tigers faced only three knocked hits over the infield. The rest bounced through, seeing-eye style.
“That means you’ve got sink and are making them hit it on the ground, which we want,” Cohen said. But State also wanted them fielded.
Consecutive one-out singles in the third set LSU up to get on the board. Though the infield was shifted and Jake Fraley hit it to that side, it still bounced through for a RBI. Hudson limited the damage to one, but in the fourth things went worse.
Bryce Jordan singled to lead off and LSU played the bunt game. Hudson fielded with back to the bag and just dropped the ball, for an error and two on. A grounder to 1B Nate Lowe forced an out at the middle base with the relay low and not in time. Jordon was on third as Michael Papierski lifted the sacrifice-fly to center for a 2-0 lead. Papierski was running on Cole Freeman’s grounder to shortstop so Gridley had to throw to first.
He didn’t have to sail the throw though, leaving Tigers on corners with the inning alive. Antoine Duplantis made the error hurt with his single to center for the RBI.
The Dog deficit reached 4-0 in the fifth after a leadoff walk and three-straight singles, the last by Greg Deichman to plate Chris Reid. Hudson hung in to leave the sacks stuffed with a strikeout and comebacker that ended his evening.
LHP Vance Tatum took over for the sixth and erased a leadoff single with a double-play. He returned with the 4-2 margin and an out into the seventh he produced a fly ball to right that Stovall chased. RF Jake Mangum called him off, only to have the ball tick off his glove for a two-base error.
Tatum plunked Beau Jordan. With 0-2 count another lefty, Daniel Brown, took over and did strike out Deichman. But he also wild-pitched both Tigers along and on 1-2 left a slider up that should have jammed the batter. “To his credit (Papierski) rammed it into the outfield,” Cohen said.
RHP Jacob Billingsley got the final Tiger out in the eighth.
Duplantis went 3-of-5 at the top of LSU’s order, and both Jordans had a pair of hits out of the dozen total. State got a pair of hits from both Gridley and Stovall, the latter playing for the first time since injuring his knee at Alabama on April 28. Stovall had played in the series win at LSU and could see how different Poche’ was a month later.
“He spotted up really well, all credit to him. He had a good steady mix for our guys.” He was especially effective against the mid-order Bulldogs, as the 3-through-6 batters were a combined 1-for-14.
“That’s why we didn’t have our main hitters really step up and drive the ball too much,” Robson said.
Cohen was unhappy with the physical errors and more so with the mentality “We weren’t locked-in and pay attention the way we usually did” in the long winning streak.
Now either the Bulldogs or the Gators will come out of Friday still playing for the SEC Tournament title. Both also know they are hosting NCAA Regionals the next week and as of today each is projected as a national seed, too. So winning this trophy doesn’t mean as much to the Dogs as the one received Wednesday for taking the regular season crown.
But State also wants to go into NCAA play on a better note than this.
“One game can’t define who we are or the rest of our season of course,” Stovall said. “We’re going to come back strong.”
State will start #2 man RHP Austin Sexton (7-2, 3.39) while Florida has not named their man. All-SEC Logan Shore has yet to throw in Hoover.