It wasn’t “Disco Demolition Night” at Alex Box Stadium, but the Bee Gees were blaring appropriately from the ballpark’s P.A. system as fans streamed in through the long afternoon shadows for Thursday night’s LSU-Auburn game.
“Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive …”
Most of LSU’s players would probably prefer something with a little more modern vibe to it. Freshman third baseman Josh Smith probably couldn’t pick Barry Gibb out of a lineup if he had an “I’m a Bee Gee” sign hung around his neck. But as for matching the soundtrack to the moment, it could hardly have been better.
The Tigers have had more dirt kicked on them than a season’s worth of Earl Weaver’s umpires (forgive me, I grew up in the 70s). Some of that dirt has been shoveled in LSU’s direction from this column.
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But here the Tigers are, the Southeastern Conference regular-season schedule thundering to a close, with as big a pack of contenders jockeying for first place as in Sunday’s NASCAR race at Talladega, and LSU is still very much in the thick.
Thursday’s 4-0 win over Auburn wasn’t an offensive onslaught for LSU, not even after chasing visiting starter Andrew Mitchell after his brief 2.1 erratic innings. The Tigers managed just six hits overall, only three off Auburn reliever Gabe Klobosits over the final 5.2 innings though he was being roughed up to the tune of .361 by opposing hitters this season.
But with Alex Lange dealing for a second straight home start, LSU didn’t need much in the way of offense. He spun a dominant complete-game shutout, allowing just five hits over nine innings while striking out nine with no walks.
In this week’s only SEC Thursday night game, LSU made a small but important statement. The home Tigers improved to 16-9 with the victory, tying SEC co-leaders Florida and Mississippi State in the win column and moving within a half-game of the idle Bulldogs and Gators (both 16-8) with five to go.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri has spent much of this season trying to preach the gospel of his Tigers not being as bad as people think. After this game, his message was an attempt to tamp down any bubbling giddiness, especially with Auburn’s two stud starting pitchers — Keegan Thompson (5-3, 2.08 ERA) and Casey Mize (6-1, 1.39) — ready to launch.
“I know we’re 16-9, but all we’ve done tonight is avoid getting swept,” Mainieri said. “(Friday) is the biggest game of the year. We’re going to be playing one of the best pitchers I’ve seen in a long time in college baseball.
“I’m very pleased, but it’s just one win.”
You could hazard a guess as to Auburn coach Butch Thompson’s motivations for not throwing Thompson in what would have been a nationally televised pitching showdown with Lange. Both Thompson and Mize threw Saturday in a weather-mandated doubleheader against Alabama, so bringing the former back on four days rest probably wasn’t an option.
But it’s possible Auburn was willing to sacrifice a game that would have been hard to win against Lange for two more in the rest of the series. Either way Auburn, which has suddenly lost five straight after being swept by Bama and falling Tuesday at UAB, is up against it after being the surprise of the SEC West for most of the season.
Lange can relate to tough spots. He had one wobbly three-run inning last Friday against South Carolina and it cost him a 3-2 complete-game loss in which he gave up just one hit the other eight frames. This time, he left nothing to chance after being staked to just the second 3-0 first-inning lead produced by LSU in SEC play (he benefited from the other at Bama).
“When you’re able to pitch early with the lead you don’t have to be as fine,” Lange (6-5) said. “Having good stuff means it’s a day that you can save the bullpen. You can tell them to take the day off.”
As a starter, Lange’s good stuff only gets shown once a week. And try as he might not to let it happen, there was a real possibility that Thursday could have been probable first-rounder’s last start at The Box. He enhanced LSU’s chances of hosting at least an NCAA regional, but the potential finality of what he was doing seeped into his mind.
“You’re trying not to let it happen, but I kind of thought about it,” Lange said. “With two outs (in the ninth) I just stood on the back of the mound and took it all in. It was pretty special.
“This university and this team mean the world to me. We want to keep it going.”