HOUSTON — Conner Hale was unsure if the ball would be ruled fair or foul.
So the LSU infielder made a backhanded grab, spun around, ran toward first base and slung the ball as hard as he could.
Out. LSU, meet your new third baseman.
Hale played perfect defense at the hot corner, drove in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning and LSU got a gem from freshman pitcher Alex Lange as the Tigers beat Baylor 2-0 on Saturday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
LSU (14-1) won its 11th straight game, claiming a victory in a drama-filled pitching duel highlighted by Hale’s stirring play at a sore spot for this squad — third base. Moved their earlier this week for the struggling Danny Zardon, Hale will stay put, coach Paul Mainieri said after the game.
“Boy, the third base position has been a little bit of an Achilles’ heel for us, but I think we’ve found our third baseman,” he said. “We put on a clinic out there today.”
His starting pitcher, too. Lange, a rookie from Missouri, had his most memorable outing of his four starts, tossing a career-long seven innings, allowing seven hits and surviving a pair of pressure-packed jams in a scoreless game in the sixth and seventh inning — with help from Hale, of course.
In both innings, Baylor (6-7) got men on first and second with one out. Lange got out of the jams, eliciting a loud roar from a mass of LSU fans at the Astros’ park in Day 2 of the three-day Houston College Classic. Hale made all three outs in a tense seventh inning — most notably that rangy snag of a hard-hit ball down the third-base line. It was the first out of the inning and came with a runner on first base. He made another moments later, hustling for a sacrifice bunt that he zipped to first just in time. With men on second and third, Hale finished the inning with a charging play on a chopper in the grass to keep the game scoreless.
A thunderous roar came from an estimated 7,000 purple-clad LSU fans in 40,000-seat Minute Maid Park — many probably relieved for some solid play at third. LSU third basemen have made 10 errors this season, and Hale had an errant throw in a 4-2 win over Houston on Friday night — his only hiccup since replacing Zardon four games ago.
“Felt really good over there,” Hale said. “Felt great.”
Hale, owner of Friday’s two-run home run Friday, drove in the game’s first run in the eighth on a flyout to center field, and closer Jesse Stallings escaped a bases-loaded situation in the ninth for his seventh save in seven opportunities. Stallings’ changeup was called a strike on the outside corner of the plate with the bases full to end the game and start the celebration.
“When he called it, my eyes lit up,” Stallings said.
Reliever Zac Person pitched a perfect eighth inning to keep the bullpen fresh for a possible sweep at this six-team event in downtown Houston. LSU meets Nebraska (7-5) at 11 a.m. Sunday in the final of three games here. Hale has stolen the show so far.
The Floridian extended his hitting streak to 15 games — every game this season — with a single in the fourth inning, and he had that two-run smash in Friday night’s opener here. More important, of course: his play at third base, a position vacated by the departure of web gem pro Christian Ibarra.
Mainieri said he made the decision to keep Hale at third base before Saturday.
“That just solidifies it. He’s going to be our guy at third base,” the coach said.
And of Lange? He’s a 19-year-old who pitched out of a host of pressure-packed situations in a big league park to pick up his fourth win in four starts. He’s got an ERA of 1.20.
“Lange was the key for us,” Mainieri said. “While we were throwing up zeros offensively, he kept throwing up zeros for us defensively.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.