Paul Mainieri’s message following Saturday’s pair of losses to Alabama centered on experience — how the games gave his young team a dose of it and that the results were, in part, due to the lack thereof.
Brody Wofford, like many of his teammates, had none of it when he was called upon as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning of Sunday’s 7-5 win against the Crimson Tide in Alex Box Stadium.
While his team trailed 4-1, he took two quick strikes before working the count even in the first Southeastern Conference at-bat of his career.
“Tried to read fastball, adjust offspeed,” Wofford said. “I lucked out, got one and hit it.”
Wofford took the next pitch back up the middle, his fourth collegiate hit and first in SEC play, to spur a six-run eighth inning and help LSU avoid getting swept at home in SEC play for the first time since 2011.
The Rome, Georgia, native, who had just 13 career at-bats before becoming Sunday’s savior, faced an identical scenario in LSU’s opening night win against Cincinnati, singling on a full count in the bottom of the 10th inning as a pinch hitter, driving in a run and continuing a rally.
“That dude’s just a baller, man,” Kramer Robertson said. “He’ll tell you that himself. He’s got a ton of confidence, and that’s what you want in a freshman. That’s why we put him in that situation. I had every bit of confidence he was going to come through for us there.”
Robertson lifted a lazy fly ball to right field two batters later that Alabama’s Chandler Taylor lost in the sun, dropping in for a two-run single.
Robertson would slide headfirst into home plate, arms outstretched and sans helmet, three batters later when Beau Jordan’s RBI single through the left side evaded Hunter Webb’s glove and allowed an extra run to score — the sixth of the inning.
Coming into the inning, LSU had scored just four runs on the weekend, spanning 25 innings that were plagued with wind that, on Sunday, came from the west-northwest and gusted as high as 22 mph.
“(The wind) was discouraging at times,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know what the statistics show as far as us hitting with runners in scoring position — it can’t be very pretty, I’m sure — but at least we found a way. Like I told the kids after the game, ‘It’s not what we had hoped for, obviously, but winning today was very crucial.’ ”
LSU hit .400 — 6-for-15 — with runners in scoring position Sunday, four of those six hits coming in the six-run eighth. All aside from Robertson’s lost popup were ground balls or line drives, a testament to two days spent focusing on hitting the ball on the ground to avoid the wind.
The Tigers hit into just eight fly-ball outs Sunday after launching 26 in Saturday’s two games.
“We kind of hung tough those last couple innings, started putting balls in play, getting runners on base,” Wofford said. “And that was our main philosophy, trying to get it on the ground.”
LSU starter John Valek III surrendered leadoff singles in both the first and third innings, both of which were sacrificed into scoring position and driven in by RBI singles from Cody Henry and Chandler Avant to put the Tigers in an early 2-0 hole.
Attempting to answer one of the preseason’s biggest questions, Valek used an 86-mph fastball mixed with mid-70s offspeed pitches to keep the Tide off balance for just seven singles and one walk. He added eight strikeouts, none bigger than his punchout of Georgie Salem for the second out of the sixth.
A pitch earlier, Salem attempted to bunt with runners on second and third, but Valek’s fastball ran inside and home plate umpire Kevin Sweeney awarded him first base after the pitch appeared to hit him.
The umpires conversed after Mainieri objected to the call, and Salem was brought back to the plate. Valek struck out Salem on his next pitch and then got Will Haynie to foul out, eliciting an audible yell from the Akron transfer as he exited the field for the final time.
“My job is to put up a zero there, keep us in the game and give us a chance to get our offense back in here and put some runs on the board,” Valek said. “That was a big battle. I just left it all out there. I kind of had the sense that was probably going to be my last batter, so I left it all out there for that one.”
Closer Caleb Gilbert logged 2.1 innings for the win, striking out the go-ahead run to end the game while the tying run stood in scoring position — loosening a team that, at times, looked primed to start 0-3 in SEC play.
“When this team gets backed up on the ropes, this team is very special,” Beau Jordan said. “(But) we have to come out here and start scoring; we don’t need Coach yelling at us or getting on us for us to just do our jobs, which is to hit the ball hard and just get it through the infield.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome.