“I think they are the best team in America right now,” the former LSU assistant said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re going to get there.”
The best club in the country won’t be settled for another five weeks. Saturday did determine LSU tied for best in the Southeastern Conference this year. The Tigers (39-17, 21-9) completed a sweep of Mississippi State to share the 2017 title with Florida. They will be the second seed in next week’s SEC Tournament on tie-break with the Gators.
For the Bulldogs, the last day of the regular schedule was a last chance to score a bye at Hoover. That hope faded after LSU broke a 4-4 third inning tie with runs in the next five frames. Mississippi State (34-22, 17-13) will instead play in Tuesday’s single elimination round as the #5 seed, facing #12 Georgia.
Cannizaro naturally was happy for his previous program. “Congratulations to those guys for winning the league,” State’s first-season coach said. “At the same breath I’m really proud of our guys, our team for where we finished.”
Even before the first pitch the Bulldogs knew their seed and matchup. Rains delayed the 3:30 start long enough for all other SEC series to conclude. State did not even have to play as winning or losing would not change the seeding. LSU quite obviously wanted to get the third game in and win to earn another SEC trophy.
The Tigers did by the same approach that worked so well in 4-1 and 11-5 wins. They got the timely hits with runners ready to score, and had many of those same runners positioned by home team charity. Five State pitchers combined for ten walks and a pair of hit batters as well. Three of these scored and others pushed people on around bases without requiring contact.
RHP Cole Gordon (2-2) got both the start and the decision as LSU jumped on the former first baseman for five of their runs on four hits and four walks. Gordon did strand a pair in the opening inning because RF Elijah MacNamee robbed Coomes of a double.
But a Josh Smith single to lead off the second turn was followed by Beau Jordan’s no-doubt shot over leftfield. Gordon was rattled enough to walk and plunk the #8 and 9 batters. Kramer Robertson and Antoine Duplantis each singled in teammates for the 4-0 lead.
LSU freshman righty Eric Walker wasn’t sharp either. He needed a two-out grounder to leave the first-inning bases full, then in the second put a pair of Dogs on as DH Hunter Vansau doubled and 3B Luke Alexander worked at two-out walk. SS Ryan Gridley’s liner to left-center doubled in both to cut the deficit in half.
The next inning 2B Hunter Stovall was up with LF Cody Brown on base after a leadoff walk. Stovall didn’t hit a homer all his freshman season, or all this regular season…until the last scheduled game. His drive cleared leftfield and tied things up 4-4.
But, the Bulldogs could not take a lead and soon enough were playing from behind again. A one-out walk in the LSU fourth finished Gordon. He was still responsible for Robertson being on so Greg Deichman’s high bouncer could go off Alexander’s glove for a scratch single and go-ahead RBI.
That was off RHP Riley Self, who was tagged for a double and RBI single in the fifth with Michael Papierski driving in the run. Self put three Tigers on bases in the top of the sixth and all scored, though two of those came with new reliever RHP Spencer Price giving up the hits. Or, with bases loaded, the walk of Zach Watson to make the margin 9-4.
Mississippi State wasn’t entirely done. Nick Bush replaced Walker for the Bulldog fifth and only needed to strand Vansau. In the sixth consecutive walks to the bottom two in State’s order brought the trouble. 1B Brent Rooker’s one out-single scored C Josh Lovelady, then CF Jake Mangum punched a single up the middle for two more RBI.
Righthander Caleb Gilbert was rushed in to keep the difference 9-7. He took care of the seventh inning with just an error against him, then gave the ball to Hunter Newman to take Dogs down in-order both of the final frames. This made Gilbert (3-1) the winner on just 1.2 timely and scoreless innings with four strikeouts, while Newman fanned two.
There was no save situation as LSU had padded the margin. Nick Coomes drove in a run in the seventh, and after Robertson tripled he scored on Cole Freeman’s double. Those runs were charged respectively to Price and RHP Peyton Plumlee, with RHP Jacob Billingsley throwing an easy ninth.
Self allowed four runs on six hits with a walk and three strikeouts. Every Tiger batter drove in at least one run as Freeman posted a 3-of-3 evening.
Rooker’s likely-last game at Dudy Noble Field produced a 3-of-4 line with a RBI and a run, which keeps him on top of the SEC for another week in average, RBI, and home runs. He also drove in his 28th double of the junior season which broke Pete Young’s 1989 record of 27.
The game was also the last, barring an unexpected NCAA seeding and siting, to be played in the current Polk-DeMent Stadium. The 1987-vintage facility, as well as the famous ‘Left Field Lounge’ and all outfield areas, will be razed to make way for a $55 million stadium and venue to be completed for opening day of the 2019 season.
It was a painful finish for a team which only last Saturday was still in the lead pack atop the conference and contending for high NCAA seeding. Dropping a series at Georgia, then being swept at home took edge off what was to be a series of celebrations.
“I loved our effort, the focus, but we just came up short at the end of the weekend,” Cannizaro said.
Cannizaro and Rooker will be in Jackson Monday for the annual Boo Ferriss Trophy ceremony, as Rooker is one of the five finalists. Mangum won the trophy in 2016 as part of State’s SEC Champions squad.
The entire team will leave mid-afternoon for a 5:40 practice in Hoover ahead of Tuesday’s late game.