COLUMBIA, S.C. – The distraction of an opposing coach’s ejection and 7,000-plus booing, roaring fans didn’t bother Austin Bain.
LSU might have found its No. 3 starting pitcher while winning the Southeastern Conference Western Division all in one night.
Bain threw a four-hit, 6.1-inning gem and the Tigers bullpen shook off Thursday night’s collapse, preserving a big lead in a 9-2 win over South Carolina to even the series and claim the regular season division title.
LSU (45-9, 20-8) secured the school’s 18th SEC West crown and pushed a fifth conference series this season into a rubber match – a game set for 7 p.m. Saturday on SEC Network. Coach Paul Mainieri’s team has a shot to win nine of 10 SEC series and, maybe, secure the school’s first ever NCAA No. 1 national seed.
“We want more,” Mainieri said. “This is just a beginning.”
The consensus No. 1-ranked team in the nation, LSU and its bevy of arms rebounded from a stunning collapse in a 10-7 series-opening loss to South Carolina (32-23, 13-16) on Thursday night, and its bats dinged 15 hits across Carolina Stadium to jump out to a 5-1 lead after five innings.
In front of an ESPNU audience, Bain snatched the win in an impressive outing despite a host of distractions. An announced sellout crowd of 8,242 turned angry halfway through the game. They hit a crescendo in the fifth inning when home plate umpire Steve Dew tossed USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers for, presumably, arguing balls and strikes from the dugout.
Bain followed the ejection with back-to-back strikeouts to start the bottom of that inning.
“That was huge,” Mainieri said. “That was probably the most pivotal time. They rode that momentum of the crowd last night. If Bain would have had a rough inning, who know what would have happened.”
The freshman from Geismar flourished in his return to the weekend rotation after a one-week absence, stymieing the Gamecocks and possibly popping their NCAA regional bubble.
Bain struck out seven and, at one point, retired 13 consecutive batters and 16 of 17. South Carolina followed a first-inning solo home run by going 17 straight plate appearances without a hit as Bain reclaimed a weekend role with authority.
Mainieri pulled him from the rotation, and Bain (2-2) responded last week by allowing just two hits in a 5.1 innings of relief in a Game 3 win at Missouri.
“Kind of had something to prove, but I felt like last weekend I kind of had something to prove too,” Bain said. “I just went out and did what I had to do.”
On Friday night, Bain threw four straight perfect innings, from the third through the sixth, before allowing three singles in the seventh and giving way to reliever Parker Bugg.
Bugg walked his first batter, No. 7 hole hitter Hunter Taylor, to load the bases before getting DC Arendas to hit into a double play to second base. Jared Foster flipped to Alex Bregman at second and Bregman hurled it to Chris Chinea at first base to save at least a run in a 7-2 game.
Bugg started 2-1 on Arendas, sparking a mound visit from catcher Kade Scivicque in a rocking environment.
“Scivicque came up to me after the 2-1 pitch and kind of made me take a step back, which is huge,” Bugg said. “Just went right after him and got the double play.”
It was a relief for a bullpen that walked a whopping five batters Thursday and helped the Tigers blow a 6-2 lead through five innings.
“I hate walks, no doubt about that,” Mainieri said. “(Bugg) made a big pitch and he turned a double play, which was huge.”
Andrew Stevenson had four hits, and Mark Laird and Kade Scivicque each had three. Scivicque scorched two doubles and drove in three runs as the Tigers dinged around a USC starter for a second straight night. On Thursday, they took Jack Wynkoop for 11 hits. They got 10 hits off Clarke Schmidt through 5.1 innings on Friday.
“Our guys are really swinging it well,” said Scivicque. “Tonight we got the big hits when we needed them.”
They had to fight back from a deficit.
In a familiar scene, USC No. 3 hitter Max Schrock hit a two-out, solo home run over the right field wall in the first inning off Bain. Schrock did the same – two-out, first-inning shot to right field – against LSU starter Jared Poché in Thursday’s series opener.
Schrock launched Bain’s 0-1 pitch to put LSU in a familiar place: behind. The Tigers have trailed in 10 of the last 11 SEC games. They won a seventh one of those on Friday night – much of it because of Bain.
“I felt great. Normally it’s just a fastball, changeup but I felt like I had my curveball today,” Bain said. “All three were working.”
It’s a huge boost to an LSU team that’s been in a season-long search for a solid and consistent No. 3 starter. Maybe it’s Bain.
“Got to tip your hat to Austin Bain,” Stevenson said. “He did a lot more than we asked of them. He just comes in and shuts them down.”
Bugg retired three of four in the eighth, and Russell Reynolds pitched a clean ninth. He struck out Alex Destino to elicit a mild division-title celebration. LSU players jogged to the mound and then met in shallow left field.
The Tigers needed just one win in the three games to secure the title over Texas A&M. The two could tie, but LSU won the series over the Aggies earlier this season.
LSU can win the overall regular season SEC championship with a win Saturday or a Vanderbilt loss. If LSU loses and A&M sweeps a doubleheader at Ole Miss, the two would share the division and overall championships.
“Any championship you accomplish is a great milestone,” Laird said, “but we’re still after the overall. We’re going to come out tomorrow and prove something.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.