HOOVER, Ala. — Two weeks ago, when this wild, sometimes heart-stopping end to the LSU baseball team’s season still was in its infancy and the wins were all against bad teams, coach Paul Mainieri corrected himself while standing on the Alex Box Stadium field.
“Not just deepest in the country,” the LSU coach said of then-No. 1 Florida’s pitching staff, which was about to bus into Baton Rouge. “They’re probably the deepest in the history of college baseball.”
Mainieri’s plaudits were not hyperbole.
The Gators bullpen that stifled LSU 1-0 in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal possesses talent that major league scouts dream of but Florida doesn’t have to use. Its top two starters will go in the first 20 picks of the draft in two weeks. Mainieri surmised that some of coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s other arms — as many as six — will be drafted in the first round when they become eligible.
Scott Moss is a left-hander in that bullpen who underwent Tommy John surgery just before entering college. He rehabilitated during his freshman season, taking a redshirt. Florida did not require his services last season, opting to proceed with caution with his fragile elbow.
“Lot of lonely days in that training room,” O’Sullivan said. “Certainly he’s never been forgotten.”
LSU soon won’t forget, either.
Moss entered Saturday’s start with 16.1 innings of collegiate experience. Four of those were starts. He had never pitched more than three innings.
The lefty crossed that threshold with ease at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, out-pitching Caleb Gilbert, the Tigers’ true freshman starter who made just one mistake in his much-anticipated hometown start.
“(Moss) looks like a top-three-rounder to me,” Mainieri said. “It’s just amazing that they have such a plethora of great arms, and it presents a huge challenge to whoever they play.”
Standing 6-foot-5, Moss sat in the mid-90s with a plus slurve. He breezed through six scoreless innings with just one threat to manage.
Mike Papierski, hitless since April 22 before his uprising Thursday, shot a leadoff double down the third-base line in the third, and Cole Freeman followed with a bunt single — two of the Tigers’ three hits off Moss.
Runners were at the corners for the top of LSU’s order — two left-handed hitters. But Antoine Duplantis waved wildly at off-speed pitches for a four-pitch strikeout before Jake Fraley bounced into a 4-6-3 double play. It began a stretch of 10 straight batters whom Moss retired, including a career-high sixth strikeout to end the fifth inning.
Gilbert matched his adversary admirably, working around constant traffic on the bases and three walks to post five scoreless innings. He entered the sixth without surrendering much in the way of hard contact. Two of Florida’s three hits against him did not leave the infield.
A third soon came. Dalton Guthrie squibbed a ball down the third-base line. Chris Reid backhanded it, bobbled and was a tad late on the throw. It was scored an infield single.
With two outs and Guthrie at second, Gilbert found himself ahead 1-2 to fellow freshman Jonathan India. India fisted a fastball that ran in on his hands inside the line in left field for an RBI double, producing the game’s only run.
“He did what he was supposed to do,” Gilbert said.
Mainieri sauntered to retrieve his freshman following the hit.
The Hoover Met crowd, comprised partly of Gilbert’s friends from Hoover High School, extended family and fellow churchgoers, rose for a roaring standing ovation as he entered the dugout.
“The emotions were running, but I was trying to stay even-keeled all day, especially during the game,” Gilbert said. “As far as that goes, it went well — just staying calm. When I got that ovation from the support system I have here in Hoover, just a great moment.”
Gilbert, along with LSU relievers Doug Norman and Riley Smith, teamed to throw a five-hitter. The Tigers offense provided little in the way of support.
Getting shut out for the first time since April 12, LSU managed just six hits. Two were doubles with less than two outs, though the opportunities were wasted. Gators second baseman Guthrie booted a routine ground ball in the sixth that proved harmless when home plate umpire Tony Walsh rang up Kramer Robertson to end the inning. The strikeout was one of 11 on the day.
Still, with a predominantly purple and gold crowd urging it along, an LSU team that has staged so many rallies began another. Robertson lined a single the other way to open the ninth inning off Florida closer Shaun Anderson. He advanced to second two pitches later when Anderson’s slider eluded catcher Mike Rivera’s glove.
Anderson fell behind Bryce Jordan 3-0 but came back to punch him out before issuing a groundout to pinch hitter Brody Wofford, moving Robertson to third. Beau Jordan flied to right, stranding a runner for the fourth consecutive inning and ending the Tigers’ SEC tournament run.
“This is an outing (Moss) will never forget,” O’Sullivan said. “To do what he did against LSU, it’s a memory he’ll never forget.”