STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State shortstop Ryan Gridley led off the Mississippi State first inning by sending a 1-1 Alex Lange pitch into the sea of tailgaters in the left field lounge, sending the cowbells into a clanging fury.
It was an amazing start for the Bulldogs. Unfortunately for them, Lange still got to pitch afterward.
LSU’s ace right-hander was downright filthy Thursday night, striking out 11 in seven utterly dominant innings to lead LSU to a 3-1 series-opening win.
“That guy gives you every ounce of everything he’s got,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “… He pitched a great ballgame for us. He was a leader.”
The Tigers (37-17, 19-9 Southeastern Conference) finished the night in a three-way tie for first place in the SEC after Kentucky knocked off Florida in Gainesville. LSU can clinch the SEC West with one win, or can clinch a share with an Arkansas loss.
For Lange (7-5), the game got off to the rockiest possible start, but, he said, “solo homers aren’t going to beat you, especially to lead off the game. We still had 27 more outs to get.”
After the leadoff homer, the only time Lange got into any real trouble was in his final two innings.
With one out in the sixth, Lange issued a four-pitch walk to Luke Alexander to load the bases. The only problem for Mississippi State: it now had the bases loaded against Lange.
Entering Thursday’s game, opponents were 0-14 with one walk and 10 strikeouts with the bases loaded against Lange.
“That’s when I love to pitch, when your back’s against the wall … and you’ve got to rise up,” Lange said. “I love that. It’s a good feeling. It’s like a drug to me getting out of that kind of stuff. The adrenaline rush to me is like nothing else.”
Mississippi State (34-20, 17-11) did not fare better than anyone else has with the bases loaded against Lange.
Tanner Poole struck out swinging, and Hunter Stovall flew out to right field to end the inning, causing the big LSU right-hander to nearly spin himself into the ground with a ferocious fist pump.
He wasn’t yet done. Mississippi State again pushed him to the brink in the seventh inning, drawing a pair of two-out walks to once again load the bases with two outs.
Lange stayed true to form.
He pumped a pair of 90 mph fastballs past senior catcher Josh Lovelady — his 123rd and 124th pitches of the evening — then buckled Lovelady’s knees with an 0-2 curveball for a called strike three, quickly quieting a suddenly loud Dudy Noble Field.
“Everybody talks about clutch hitting, but there’s such a thing as clutch pitching as well,” Mainieri said. “Alex Lange is the definition of clutch pitching.”
The LSU lineup did not muster much against Bulldogs pitchers Konnor Pilkington (6-5) and Peyton Plumlee, but it was enough.
LSU struck for two runs in the fourth against Pilkington, the MSU ace, when it loaded the bases with nobody out, then scored a pair of runs on a sacrifice fly and a two-out RBI single from freshman Zach Watson.
The Tigers knocked Pilkington out after six innings, largely thanks to that fourth inning, when they worked the left-hander for 34 pitches. Watson said they were hunting fastballs, even though Pilkington was sending them LSU’s way at 95 mph.
“We were going for the heat, even though he might run it up to 96 or 97,” Watson said. “We hit him hard and got him out of there.”
LSU added a run on Watson’s sacrifice fly in the eighth inning off Plumlee to provide a cushion for relievers Zack Hess and Hunter Newman, who logged a pair of scoreless innings to nail down the win.
LSU has now won nine of its past 10 SEC games. It moved into a three-way tie for first place after Kentucky thumped Florida on the road.
As long as Kentucky and Florida split the last two games of the series, LSU would need to win one more game to earn at least a share of the overall SEC title. The Tigers can only earn an outright title if it sweeps Mississippi State, and Florida and Kentucky split the final two games.
Arkansas took its series opener against Texas A&M Thursday, keeping its slim hopes alive at an SEC West title. The Razorbacks need to sweep the Aggies, and also need LSU to lose the final two games of its series.