HOOVER, Ala. — Kramer Robertson came to the plate in the fifth inning as the only player in the LSU lineup without a hit against Kentucky pitcher Sean Hjelle, the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year.
That changed in a hurry.
Robertson tattooed a 2-0 fastball from Hjelle, taking his time to watch it as it soared high into the night air and sailed over the left field fence for a three-run home run that put LSU in front 10-0.
“Regardless of if it was Nolan Ryan or Joe Blow on the mound, we felt like we could hit anybody right now,” Robertson said.
He meant it. LSU (41-17) won via run rule in seven innings to advance to the SEC tournament semifinal for the fifth consecutive year. It was a complete team effort, with LSU hanging a 10 spot on the conference’s Pitcher of the Year and completely shutting down the league’s most potent offense behind a great performance from its own ace.
It was the first time Kentucky (39-19) had been shut out this season.
LSU blasted Hjelle (9-3) for 10 runs on 11 hits in five innings, with almost all of the damage (10 of the 11 hits, all of the runs) coming in the second and fifth innings.
The 6-foot-11 right-hander had given up just 14 earned runs in his previous 10 SEC starts, and making things even more surprising, appeared to LSU to have his best stuff Thursday.
“Our players were talking in the dugout about how much more electric Hjelle’s stuff was today than it was when we faced him a month ago in Lexington,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “… But yet, we got to him.
HOOVER, Ala. — The sound you heard coming from these parts Thursday night was the lock slamm…
“The second time around the lineup we had a lot more quality at bats, and we had a couple fortuitous things happen to us.”
It actually started before LSU turned its lineup over. No. 7 hitter Beau Jordan started it all with an infield single on a chopper to the right of the mound. Three different Wildcats converged on the ball, but nobody covered the bag.
The dominoes kept falling. The next six LSU batters reached base, four of whom ripped singles off Hjelle as the Tigers lineup washed over Kentucky for a five-run second inning.
Hjelle settled into a groove from that point, retiring eight straight Tigers, six of them by strikeout. But that would not last.
Greg Deichmann greeted him to start the fifth inning with an opposite field ground-rule double. The floodgates opened again. LSU followed that with an RBI single, a double and an RBI infield single to score two more runs and set the stage for Robinson to send LSU home early.
“That’s as good a pitcher as you’re going to see,” Robertson said. “He’s 6-(foot)-11, up to mid-90s with a two-seam (fastball) a nasty slider and a changeup. What we did was pretty special. That guy’s legit.”
It was the fourth consecutive game LSU scored 10 runs against SEC pitching, the first time LSU had accomplished that feat since the 2000 season.
And, as Mainieri said, “if you’re going to have a 10-run lead you might as well have Alex Lange on the mound.”
As has frequently been the case of late, Lange (8-5) was magnificent in seven strong innings. He also made some history by passing LSU great Ben McDonald on LSU’s career strikeouts list to move into second place in school history.
McDonald was on hand to witness Lange’s performance as the ESPN analyst during the game. When Lange passed him to move into second place, McDonald said, “Alex Lange just blew by me like a freight train.”
It was the continuation of a string of fine efforts for Lange, who did not walk a batter or allow the Wildcats to advance a runner past second base as he fired seven shutout innings.
In his last 10 starts against SEC opponents, Lange has logged 72.1 innings, has given up 14 earned runs and has struck out 82 batters.
His latest gem came against a Kentucky team that led the SEC in virtually every meaningful category besides home runs (Kentucky ranked No. 2 in homers).
Lange said he was hoping he had another chance to pitch against Kentucky.
“We’re playing really good baseball right now,” Lange said. “Early in the year, we weren’t playing as good as we can play. I think we’re starting to come around. We’re playing the way we’re capable of playing. This is the right time of year to do that.”
The win meant LSU will get Friday off while Kentucky battles South Carolina for the right to play LSU Saturday at noon. The tournament shifts back into single elimination from this point on.