One week after throwing the first individual no-hitter by an LSU pitcher since 1979, Jared Poché nearly did the improbable again.
The crowd at Alex Box Stadium roared when Poché walked out to the mound with purpose to start the ninth inning against Maryland on Saturday afternoon. He was attempting to throw back-to-back no-hitters, a feat so rare it has only happened once in the 148-year history of Major League Baseball.
That dream came to an end when Maryland leadoff hitter Zach Jancarski hit a chopper up the middle on a full-count pitch. Freshman Josh Smith, who started the game at third base, showed impressive range to track the ball down, but his desperation heave to first base did not have a chance to get Jancarski.
“Nobody makes that play,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It was ridiculous that he even got to that ball.”
The infield single ended a streak of 15 consecutive hitless innings thrown by Poché to begin his senior season.
Almost as an aside, LSU pounded out 14 runs on 18 hits to cruise to a 14-0 series-clinching win. But that wasn’t what everyone stayed to watch for as the game dragged along.
Mainieri may have been the most tense observer. It’s the second time he had to grapple with whether to leave his senior pitcher, so crucial to his team’s success, on the mound to chase a zero. He wanted to pull Poché from the game after the seventh inning, at which point the senior had thrown 76 pitches.
“I let (LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn) talk me into leaving him in the game there,” Mainieri said. “And Poché kind of talked me into it, too.”
Mainieri let it ride. Poché worked around a four-pitch walk in the eighth inning and entered the ninth having thrown 92 pitches. Everything in the stadium seemed to point to something historic until it quickly unraveled in the most “that’s baseball” of ways — an infield hit.
“I made a good pitch," Poché said. "I was very convicted with it. … He got enough of it and put it in the right spot. It wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”
As Poché walked off the mound, he received a standing ovation and hugs from several teammates — the first of whom was Friday night starter Alex Lange. The two standout pitchers shared a long embrace as Lange yelled something into Poché’s ear.
This outing was much different than Poché’s first, a seven-inning contest against Army that lasted less than two hours.
As LSU’s hitters pummeled Maryland pitching — racking up 11 runs on 13 hits in the first three innings alone — Poché often had to sit in the dugout for extended periods of time, waiting for his turn to go back on the mound. This Saturday’s game lasted a full hour longer than last Saturday.
At one point, Poché got up in the bullpen just to loosen up again.
“At a certain point, I was like, ‘All right — you know, guys, that’s enough; I’m ready to get back out there,’ ” Poché said.
He also had the unique experience of walking to the mound three outs away from a no-hitter and being surrounded by an almost completely different defense than the one that started the game.
Only three starters played the entire game for LSU (6-1), and all of them finished at different positions than they started. Still, Poché was not the recipient of some outstanding defense from those replacements.
Freshman outfielder Zach Watson, playing center field, looked like he made one of those signature defensive plays that sometimes define no-hitters. He raced to straightaway center and made a brilliant over the shoulder catch on a dead sprint to end the seventh inning.
Watson said after the game he didn’t see it off the bat.
Poché even received his first career at-bat — a move that became necessary when Mainieri moved Rankin Woley, the designated hitter, into the field. To Poché’s chagrin, Mainieri would not let him swing the bat.
“I don’t want to brag, but I hit like .430 with eight (home runs) my senior year,” Poché said.
Overall, Poché did not look like a man upset on missing out on history. Instead, he seemed to have an understanding that getting as close as he did was rare enough in itself.
“From the outside looking in, it definitely makes it look like it’s easy,” Poché said. “This game of baseball is hard. The way baseball works is that you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. You’re going to dominate and you’re going to get embarrassed some days.
“Two weeks in a row — I’ve been very fortunate and I really can’t explain it.”