AUBURN, Ala. — LSU had hopes it could reverse its struggles on the road in its final regular-season series, but Thursday’s opener against Auburn offered a familiar and disappointing picture.
LSU’s starting pitcher lasted just three innings, putting the bullpen in a stressful situation it could not successfully manage. Its lineup limped out of the gates and was not able to match the blistering pace of its opponent. All that added up to an 11-4 loss.
The loss officially eliminated LSU (32-22, 14-14 Southeastern Conference) from the SEC’s Western Division race.
“Obviously we’re at the end of the season here and every game has magnified importance,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “We just didn’t get it done tonight.”
LSU starter Zack Hess was one strike away from recording a perfect second inning, and who knows what would have happened if he had been able to find that one pitch when he needed it.
As LSU boarded a bus bound for Auburn, its representatives all took a crack at finding an answer that has consistently evaded LSU this season.
Instead, he hung a 1-2 slider to No. 9 hitter Josh Anthony, who blooped it into right field for a two-out single. The crack of his bat triggered the avalanche.
“It was pretty much the story of the night: I elevated my pitches too much, leaving stuff in the middle of the plate,” Hess said.
The next five Auburn batters reached base, and some of them did it loudly as the home Tigers erupted for four runs.
Hess (6-5) did not even bother turning to watch where Steven Williams’ mammoth two-run homer landed.
The shot came right after Will Holland drilled a 3-1 pitch for an RBI single — the second of his four hits Thursday — that Williams crushed a belt-high fastball out to right field to give Auburn (36-18, 14-14 SEC) a 4-0 lead.
Hess said he tried to come inside on Williams because he was crowding the plate but instead left the pitch in the middle of the strike zone.
Two batters after the Williams homer, Hess tried to get a slider by Auburn slugger Brendan Venter, and it was tagged for an RBI double off the tall wall in left field.
Hess needed 42 pitches to get through that second inning. Auburn brought nine players to the plate.
He was pulled after allowing a double and a walk to start the fourth inning.
LSU packed 10 days worth of clothing for a trip it hopes lasts three days.
Hess allowed six hits and walked three while giving up five earned runs. In his past two starts, he has allowed nine earned runs in nine innings, with seven walks and 12 hits allowed.
“I just haven’t been myself these last few weeks,” Hess said.
LSU had no such luck doing something similar against Auburn freshman right-hander Tanner Burns, at least not in the early portion of the game.
Burns shut LSU out through four innings, and would have done so through five if not for his center fielder Jay Estes losing a lazy fly ball in the twilight sky, resulting in a two-run, two-out double for Austin Bain.
Against LSU, Burns made liberal use of his excellent mid-90s fastball, and the visiting Tigers were rarely able to square it up.
“It played faster than it was,” said LSU third baseman Jake Slaughter about Burns’ fastball.
Slaughter gave LSU some life when he tattooed a Burns fastball for a two-run home run in the sixth, cutting Auburn’s lead to four runs.
But Auburn responded with three runs in the bottom of the frame and three more in the bottom of the seventh against a trio of LSU relievers.
The loss dropped LSU to 3-14 away from Alex Box Stadium this season. It was LSU’s fourth road game this season allowing 10 or more runs to its opponent.
“It only counts as one; tomorrow’s a new day,” Mainieri said. “We’ve just got to come back strong (Friday).”
Friday presents an entirely different type of challenge, as LSU will try its luck against the presumptive top pick in this year’s draft, Auburn right-hander Casey Mize.