HOOVER, Ala. -- Neither Alex Lange nor A.J. Puk received what he deserved when LSU’s 14-inning, 5-3 win against Florida ended.
They were rendered mere footnotes in the longest game in SEC Tournament history, one where those two pitched brilliantly enough to woo the Major League scouts who stayed nearly five hours to watch the madness unfold and, eventually, end with a slump-busting hit from LSU’s beleaguered catcher.
Pinch hitting in the 14th inning against Florida reliever Kirby Snead, Jordan Romero — who was 0 for his last 17 and benched in favor of Mike Papierski to start the game — lined an RBI single into right field that scored Chris Reid from second. Cole Freeman blooped an RBI single to add an insurance run one batter later and Jesse Stallings shut the door in his fifth inning of relief.
“Baseball’s funny how it works like that,” Romero said. “I had kind of been running it through my head, you look at who was coming off the board. I told a couple people, I was like ‘Dude, I just have a feeling. This is like so me right here if I get the opportunity.”
The win gives LSU a tussle with No. 1 seed Mississippi State at 8 p.m. Thursday and, to the victor goes the enviable Friday day off.
Boy, will LSU need it.
At one point, the Tigers played with five infielders.
Yes, five infielders. And it worked.
Facing the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the 11th inning in a tie game, LSU coach Paul Mainieri elected to pull center fielder Jake Fraley in favor of a fifth infielder, Trey Dawson.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Stallings laughed.
Mainieri used the tactic once in 1997 at Notre Dame in 2013 at LSU, where Kramer Robertson was a freshman and summoned as the fifth infielder.
“I just felt like, if the guy hit a fly ball to the outfield, out outfield arms probably aren’t strong enough to throw a guy out anyway, so let’s take the holes out of the infield,” Mainieri said. “It was a little bit of a psyhcological ploy I put on the hitter, too.”
Stallings got Nelson Maldonado to lazily pop out on the infield before Deacon Liput lined to Chris Reid at third, who doubled off Blake Reese to wiggle away from trouble.
“I don’t want to go home tonight as a loser,” Stallings said. “I don’t want to see them walk off and do this to me. We did it last night and I don’t want to see it to happen to me or the team.”
Though it suffered a blunder on a replayed call to begin the inning, the Tigers were one out away from ending the game in the ninth. Freshman Brennan Breaux, who entered as a defensive replacement in the ninth while the Tigers held a 3-2 lead, could not corral Buddy Reed’s sinking liner into left field.
The ball popped out of his glove and landed in foul territory and it was deemed foul. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan asked for a replay, which was granted, and the call was overturned. Reed moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored the tying run on Deacon Liput’s two-out RBI single through the right side.
For the better part of seven innings, this was a picturesque pitching performance from two men who will soon be paid lumps of money to showcase this talent for a living.
The ballpark crowd emptied as the game wore on and LSU staged another comeback, but when Lange and Puk, Florida’s starter, exited their outings, it rose to its feet in appreciation of the mastery it witnessed.
Puk, who lasted a career-high 7.1 innings while permitting six hits, struck out seven. His exit was unceremonious, perhaps unfitting, for the performance he delivered.
Antoine Duplantis dribbled a slow double down the third-base line with one out in the eighth inning and Puk holding the 2-0 lead. Fraley, batting on his 21st birthday, drilled a full-count single to center field.
Tigers third base coach Nolan Cain held Duplantis at third base as Buddy Reed’s throw entered the infield. Catcher Mike Rivera received it as Fraley aggressively took second base. Rivera’s throw sailed into center field, allowing Duplantis to score the game’s first run and Fraley to motor to third.
With a contact play called in the next at-bat, Robertson bounced to shortstop. Fraley ran home as soon as bat met ball, sliding in as Rivera appeared to tag him on the head.
Home plate umpire Jeff Head ruled Fraley safe, sending Mainieri leaping into the air in jubilation as he slapped hitting coach Andy Cannizaro in glee at the tie ballgame. Lange was the first player out of the dugout, with a towel around his neck, to hug the birthday boy.
Lange’s night was complete. He indulged with a seven-inning curveball clinic that featured Florida swinging wildly at benders that fell in elevation just as they reached home plate and a better-commanded fastball that stayed around 93 mph.
Following his two-run first-inning, Lange allowed one runner to second base. Only three Gators reached in total against him. The Hoover Metropolitan Stadum radar gun measured him at 95 mph in the seventh inning as his pitch count climbed. He paid it no mind, striking out Jeremy Vasquez for his season-high tying 11th of the evening.
“It just wasn’t clicking. I was rushing it over the rubber, you can’t rush a breaking ball over the rubber, you have to make it happen out in front,” Lange said of his early struggles. “I just kind of felt myself doing that.”
Pitching against a man projected to go first overall in the MLB Draft gave Lange little room for inaccuracy or error. Puk took the two runs his offense created and began his work.
The 6-foot-7 southpaw snapped biting, moving sliders that topped at 85 mph. His fastball velocity held at 95 mph, according to the stadium radar gun. An LSU runner did not touch second base until the fourth inning.
Multiple LSU baserunners were not seen until the seventh inning, when Reid walked and Beau Jordan knocked his second single.
The game was far from over.
“A lesser group of kids would have been discouraged, demoralized,” Mainieri said.
Such is the status quo with this scrappy squad.
“This team’s special,” Lange said. “I’ve been saying it since the beginning of the year that this team was going to do something special. Just fulfilling it now.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter @Chandler_Rome