Host Louisiana State scored everything in their eighth inning rally for a 4-3 victory in Saturday’s super regional opener. The Tigers (47-17) are one more win from taking the best-of-three series and advancing to the College World Series. The win was their 15th-straight.
The Bulldogs (40-26) watched their 3-0 lead evaporate as the home team batted around in that frustrating eighth. “We played great for seven innings,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said. “They were able to get us in the last two.”
Their last one, rather. For 6.0-plus State starter LHP Konnor Pilkington had often frustrated and always survived repeated opportunities for the Tigers to get on their own scoreboard. RHP Peyton Plumlee was able to escape an inherited seventh-inning jam on a great throw and close out call at the plate.
The eighth…was another matter. “At that point the biggest thing you need it strikes,” Cannizaro said. “We weren’t able to do that.”
Down three runs LSU couldn’t have scripted it better than to have their order starting-over. A leadoff walk didn’t seem too big a deal as Plumlee got a fly-out, and even a one-out single bringing the tying Tiger to the plate didn’t lead to any mound matchup moves. Two were warming in the Bulldog bullpen at the time.
Slugger Greg Deichmann did not hit the 1-1 fastball out, he simply drove it down into the left corner to get his team on the board at last with two teammates driven in. RHP Riley Self was called on to keep what has shrunk to a 3-2 lead. The freshman couldn’t as Zach Watson singled to left for the tied tally. LSU also executed the run-and-hit with Beau Jordon for the go-ahead runner on third base.
State had no choice but walk the bases full and try to get a grounder. Instead Michael Papierski attacked the first pitch and hit it more than deep enough for Watson to score the go-ahead run.
“They were putting great swings on it,” 3B Cody Brown said as LSU hit everything Self offered hard. A sharp line-out to SS Ryan Gridley kept it a 4-3 deficit but it was enough. Zack Hesse had entered for the final out of State’s eighth. He was facing the bottom-third of the order in the ninth and despite a leadoff single was able to leave RF Hunter Vansau on third base with a swinging strikeout of 2B Hunter Stovall.
The abrupt change of late-game fortune left Pilkington without any decision. This despite going those six-plus turns with a shutout on four hits and four walks, and four strikeouts. It wasn’t domination, exactly, but the State southpaw usually found an answer for issues.
“Just going out there and getting outs was huge,” Pilkington said. “There was a point I lost my rhythm but I had to get it from the inside and use the confidence from the whole season and make pitches.”
In all 102 pitches, and if not for walks in the second and third turns Pilkington could have cruised. Defense got him out of real troubles such as the fourth when LSU finally got a base hit. Then a second. Pilkington stranded both on air-balls. In the fifth Papierski doubled to lead off and was bunted along for the top of the order.
Brown fielded Kramer Robertson’s short grounder and found Papierski practically running alongside for the easy tag.
LSU ace Alex Lange still was able to limit the Bulldogs to just one run through seven innings. That lone score came in State’s first chance, too, as Lange’s fastballs weren’t finding the zone. Walks of 1B Brent Rooker and Brown around a Gridley single loaded the bases, and CF Jake Mangum didn’t have to swing to get a RBI.
He only had to take a Lange heater off the leg for the forced-in run and 1-0 lead. Lange adapted though, taking some velocity off and putting breaking balls in the zone. He faced the minimum in the second-through-sixth with just a Gridley walk against him. That was self-erased on a failed steal.
“Alex was outstanding,” Cannizaro said. “We had him on the ropes and you have to get him early.”
The Bulldogs did get to Lange late, in their half of the eighth. This, after what would have been remembered as the defensive play of the day had State hung on. Pilkington ran out of steam in the bottom-seventh with a Jordan single and Josh Smith walk. Plumlee took over and threw the expected bunt to advance both.
#9 batter Jake Slaughter drove one high but not all that deep, allowing Mangum time to set up for the catch with forward momentum. He had so much juice on the throw that C Josh Lovelady had to go high for the catch, then sweep downward as Smith slid in hard and got his left hand on the plate. Umpire Greg Charles called out, the play was reviewed and upheld.
State built on the defensive play with their best offensive effort all evening. Stovall’s one-out double brought an intentional walk of Rooker. Gridley struck out swinging on something way-off the plate, but also so far off catcher Papierski couldn’t handle it. Both runners advanced leaving first base open.
Brown, hitless in the first three looks, was given a fourth cut at Lange. “I was looking for something over the plate, and got my pitch.” His drive to left tailed away from Antoine Duplantis for a two-run double and 3-0 lead. Hesse was called in to keep it there and did, which also put him in line for the decision if LSU came back.
They did. Hesse went to 7-1 on 1.1 scoreless. Lange had struck out ten Dogs in 7.2 turns with the three runs on as many hits, and an uncharacteristic six walks. Pilkington could share the no-decision feeling as his winning effort went for naught.
“Konnor pounded the zone, threw his curveball for strikes, kept an outstanding offensive team shut out for six innings,” Cannizaro said. His heirs weren’t able to maintain it though. “We started elevating the ball,” the coach said, “And they are way too talented to get away with those type pitches.”
Self (5-2) took the loss on 0.2 innings with two hits and a walk. Cannizaro was naturally questioned why Self hadn’t been called on earlier, though as it played out LSU was ready for his limited rookie repertoire in a way few foes have been.
“You’re asking a freshman that’s thrown more innings than any time in his life to get six outs. We’re not built that way right now,” the coach said.
“We had the utmost confidence in Peyton to get it done there, and whoever in the ninth,” Brown said.
Now Cannizaro has to pick his Sunday starter for an all-or-nothing State situation. A loss ends the season, and however surprising a season it has been the Bulldogs aren’t ready to go home.
Cannizaro said he wanted to meet with RHP Jacob Billingsley for a final check before deciding the starter. Billingsley is coming off his career-longest game last Sunday, a complete rout win at Southern Mississippi. Having never been stretched beyond five-plus innings there is concern how ready the junior could be this time.
RHP Denver McQuary is the other option. Realistically everyone will be on-call after 8:04 Sunday and several might already be in the bullpen at first pitch since.
The other recovery question isn’t an arm, but an attitude. Having come within six, really five outs of taking charge, how will the Bulldogs handle a gut-punch ending?
“It’s kind of a heartbreaker,” said senior Brown. “But I have the confidence in our team we can battle and stay in it. We just have to play a full nine next time.”