HOUSTON — Grayson Byrd walked up to a group of reporters, glanced at each one, smiled and said six words that probably ring true for many LSU fans these days.
“I’m on top of the world,” the freshman quipped.
Byrd played solid in his first career start in the field, freshman Jake Godfrey threw a career-long seven innings and Conner Hale drove in two more runs as the Tigers beat Nebraska 4-2 on Sunday, winning a 12th straight game and sweeping all three at the Houston College Classic.
Ranked as high as No. 2 nationally, LSU (15-1) finished the six-team event at Minute Maid Park having allowed just four runs in three contests — a perfect tuneup before its Southeastern Conference-opening series against Ole Miss next weekend.
It’s another highlight for an LSU athletic department that over the weekend had its men’s basketball team likely secure an NCAA tournament bid with a thrilling win at Arkansas, its gymnastics team trounce Minnesota while setting an attendance record and its softball team improve to 25-0.
As for baseball, the Tigers won three straight two-run games in southeast Texas.
“We played great baseball all weekend,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
Mainieri’s group got impressive showings from a pair of freshman starting pitchers who were making their debuts away from Alex Box Stadium. Godfrey was the latest Sunday against the Cornhuskers (7-6), an NCAA regional team last season.
Godfrey scattered eight hits and walked just two, a bugaboo of his in his first three starts. Like Alex Lange before him Saturday, Godfrey got out of a pair of jams, including a bases-loaded situation in the seventh in front of, for the third straight day, 3,000-plus LSU fans in the crowd.
“We explained to the pitchers all of the time: It doesn’t matter how good you are; your game will be defined by how you do when you’re in the jams,” Mainieri said. “They maintained their poise and continued to make big pitches. I couldn’t be happier about the way those guys all threw.”
Byrd, son of former LSU star Paul Byrd, got his first career start at second base. He drove in a run and helped turn a pressure-packed double play to end that seventh inning with the bases full in a one-run game.
Hale drove in two more runs, capping a five-RBI weekend that included a two-run homer Friday in a 4-2 win over Houston, some sparkling defense at third base and the go-ahead RBI Saturday in a 2-0 victory over Baylor. He’s on a 16-game hitting streak and helped LSU jump to a 3-1 lead with a two-run first and a one-run third.
Reliever Zac Person retired three of four batters in the eighth inning, and Parker Bugg closed the game. He allowed a runner to second in the ninth before shortstop Alex Bregman caught a tough popout in short left field to end the game, eliciting a roar from the purple-clad fans.
Bugg, serving as closer after Jesse Stallings finished the past two games, didn’t see the final out, but he heard it.
“I was like ‘Ah man, not again.’ I thought it was down (for a hit); I was about to go back up home,” he said. “And then I turned around one last time, and I heard all the LSU fans erupt.”
It was another impressive defensive outing from a squad that played back-to-back games of error-free baseball after a rough early stretch. The Tigers entered this three-game set having committed 19 errors in their first 13 games.
They got consecutive veteran-type outings from a pair of rookie starters.
Godfrey recovered from a 25-pitch first inning. He walked one and allowed a pair of singles in the inning, the last an RBI grounder up the middle. The rookie retired 11 straight batters, ending with a popup single that landed between Stevenson and Byrd in the sixth. He followed that first inning with 37 pitches over the next four.
He hit some bumps in the seventh, pitching out of a bases-loaded jam with help from his infield. Bregman teamed with Byrd to turn that inning-ending double play to leave the bases loaded with LSU leading 3-2.
Godfrey allowed three singles in the inning and issued a walk to load the bases before Nebraska’s RBI single cut the lead to one. He got a talk from pitching coach Alan Dunn before the double play, and he began to throw something different.
Godfrey calls the pitch a “cutter/slider,” something he threw a lot in high school but hasn’t used much at LSU.
“Coach came out and just said to get a ground ball,” Godfrey said. “In high school, I threw this cutter/slider thing, and it just produced ground balls like crazy. I wasn’t going to throw the traditional curveball that I’d been throwing all game, and I just threw a little cutter/slider, and it worked out pretty well.”
Sure did. LSU’s three starting pitchers this weekend each lasted at least seven innings. They allowed four runs and 19 hits and struck out 12 in a combined 21.2 innings.
Just another highlight in a weekend full of them.
“We played real great. Pitching was solid. Hitting was good. Defense made a whole lot of great plays,” Bugg said. “We just played real well, going into this midweek game and then SEC ball. Hopefully things are starting to click right now.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.