It’s pivotal for leadoff hitters to get on base. Hits are welcome, yes, but seeing pitches, working long at-bats and finding a way on base in whatever way necessary fulfill Kramer Robertson’s requirements when he leads off a game or the LSU baseball team’s lineup turns over.
Behind Robertson is Jake Fraley, who’s hitting an even .500 since he was put in the No. 2 spot in the lineup Feb. 28 against Sacramento State. Following the two veterans is Antoine Duplantis, who has yet to go hitless in his first 15 collegiate games.
When the three are simultaneously swinging well and reaching base, like they were in Sunday’s 10-6 LSU win over Ball State in Alex Box Stadium, it eases the burden on the middle third of the Tigers order, which features three new starters.
“The top of our order, I think, is really setting the tone,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Duplantis, who has now hit safely in all 15 of LSU’s games, went the other way with a flare into left field, scoring Robertson to break a 1-1 tie in the third. Bryce Jordan, the team’s No. 5 hitter, lifted a sacrifice fly two batters later, scoring Fraley to give the Tigers the lead.
“The pitchers can’t pitch around me (with runners on base), they have to throw me strikes, give me something to hit,” Duplantis said. “And when (Robertson and Fraley) are on, I get more fastballs because they’re a threat to steal, too. So that helps.”
Mike Papierski followed with an RBI single through the right side, scoring Duplantis from second and ending Ball State starter Colin Brockhouse’s afternoon.
Papierski, the No. 6 hitter, finished with a career-high three hits and three RBIs — matching his career high — after a fourth-inning single scored two more.
“They get on, and when there’s runners in scoring position, you just look for your pitch and try to put a barrel on it. Middle of the order … you want to drive in runs, and that’s what we try to do,” Papierski said. “I saw a lot of fastballs, tried to lay off offspeed and get a fastball down and put a barrel on it.”
Papierski’s single was part of a four-run fourth when, again, the top of the lineup delivered the damage. Robertson and Fraley preceded their catcher with RBI hits that drove in three of the team’s four runs — Robertson’s a first pitch double to left-center field and Fraley’s a 3-0 single.
In all, Robertson and Fraley reached base eight times in 10 tries. Robertson has reached base safely in nine of his past 10 plate appearances — via five hits, three walks and an error — while Fraley is 18-for-36 since moving to second in the order.
Duplantis’ hitting streak is the longest to start a season since Conner Hale’s 16-game streak to start last season.
“It does a wonder, especially when you get guys to third base with less than two outs,” Fraley said. “It does take away a little bit of pressure as well because that guy doesn’t have to do too much. All he has to do is make contact and put it on the ground and you’ve done your job. It just all goes hand in hand and we feed off each other and we’ve been doing a great job of that.”
Facing his former Mid-American Conference rival, Tigers starter John Valek III allowed six hits through his first three innings, each of which featured a Ball State runner in scoring position.
He limited the damage to just one run off Caleb Stayton’s two-out RBI single in the third and was aided earlier in the inning when Papierski nabbed Ryan Spaulding trying to steal second for the second out. Papierski had to throw around the batter, Alex Call, and Cole Freeman made an acrobatic catch and swipe tag to clear the bases.
Call doubled shortly thereafter, scoring on Stayton’s hit. Valek steadied to allow just two hits in his final two innings, stranding baserunners in every frame of his five-inning stint as he struck out two and allowed just that one earned run. The win was his fourth in as many starts.
“That’s kind of how the games usually go in my career, the last three years,” Valek said. “The first three weeks, I’ve been getting a lot more strikeouts and not so many hits. Today, I really had to battle. I don’t think I had one clean inning. But despite the hits, I was able to get out of all the jams and I was proud of myself the way I was able to battle out there, throw five strong innings and let the team take the lead and go from there.”