STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mike Papierski looked dejected.
LSU’s freshman catcher stood near home plate as Mississippi State players flooded around him in celebration.
The Tigers didn’t win this tight, extra-inning affair.
Seth Heck hit a game-winning single to lift Mississippi State to a thrilling 8-7 win over LSU in 12 innings Saturday evening at Dudy Noble Field, a series-salvaging, 4-hour-plus series finale that ended with a controversial bang-bang play at the plate.
The Tigers (40-8, 16-7 Southeastern Conference) lost just their third game in the last 20, just one day after securing the series victory with an 11-4 rout over State (24-24, 8-16). Heck’s shot drove in Jake Vickerson from second base, and the Bulldogs avoided a first home sweep to LSU since 1975.
LSU reliever Parker Bugg allowed just three hits in 3.2 innings of relief, giving up Heck’s one-out shot on a first pitch that bounced off the mound and scored Vickerson. Mark Laird’s throw, from short center field, to catcher Mike Papierski nearly saved the game, but Vickerson was ruled safe.
Afterward, LSU players and coach Paul Mainieri had one question: Did he touch the plate?
“I don’t even know that winning run even touched home plate,” shortstop Alex Bregman said. “We could still be playing right now.”
Said Mainieri: “I didn’t know if he touched the plate. I wasn’t sure his hand got in there. Umpire made the call. That’s the final decision. You accept it and move forward.”
Forward? That’s nearly an entire week off for the consensus No. 1-ranked team in the nation. A six-day break will have the hype machine screaming for a second time in three weeks.
LSU doesn’t play a midweek game because of final exams and will host top-20 ranked Missouri (28-19, 14-9) starting Friday in the home regular season weekend — two weeks after winning a home series over then-No. 2 Texas A&M.
Despite Saturday’s loss, LSU tightened its grip on a top eight national seed by clinching the series on Friday night in this Thursday-Saturday series in north Mississippi. The Tigers won Thursday’s 14-inning series opener only after making two game-saving defensive plays.
They nearly captured another one Saturday.
Down 7-4, LSU needed a wild, two-out rally in the ninth inning, overcoming the deficit on Chris Chinea’s bases-loaded, chopping two-run single up the middle. It knotted the game at 7 and sent the Tigers into a seventh extra-inning affair in 23 SEC games this season.
“Just an amazing rally,” Mainieri said.
But his hitters couldn’t come through in the clutch.
LSU stranded 13 base runners — three of them in scoring position in the extra innings. State reliever Ross Mitchell quieted one of the nation’s best lineups for four innings before the ninth-inning rally, and Dakota Hudson (1-0) and Zac Houston combined for a three-hit 3.1 innings of relief.
LSU twice left runners on second and third with one out. The final time came in the 12th, when Chinea singled and Danny Zardon walked before Jake Fraley struck out, and Mark Laird grounded out.
“We got to do a better job with men in scoring position,” Bregman said. “We have the most lethal offense in the country. I think every one would agree with that. That’s the one thing we need to continue to get better at. Everyone on our offense would say the same thing.”
Fraley, in the leadoff spot, finished the game 0-for-7, and Jared Foster went 0-for-5 to overshadow a career-high four-hit, four-RBI day from Chinea.
The Tigers bats couldn’t save a poor day from starter Austin Bain.
Bain lasted just two innings, tossing 44 pitchers while allowing four hits, two runs and walking a pair.
Relievers Russell Reynolds and Collin Strall walked a combined three batters, allowed three hits and three earned runs in three innings of relief in a back-and-forth affair that included three ties and four lead changes.
The last one was the most gut-wrenching.
“Could have gone both ways,” Chinea said of the game. “Think we had a great weekend overall.”
Mainieri won’t soon forget the final play. He wondered afterward about home plate umpire Scott Kennedy’s call, and he planed to replace Bugg with Doug Norman if Heck reached.
“Thought he could get Heck on a breaking ball,” the coach said, “but he just kind of hung it over the plate there. The kid put a good swing on it.”
Laird, playing center for the injured Andrew Stevenson, scooped Heck’s shot as Vickerson rounded third base. Starting catcher Kade Scivicque was pinch ran for in the ninth, and Papierski positioned himself on the third-base side of the bag.
Laird’s throw arrived about 2 feet over his head. It found his mitt, and he made a tag on Vickerson’s backside. Papierski’s 6-3, 200-pound frame blocked the plate, and Vickerson’s hand had to come from around him on an awkward knee-first slide.
Did it touch the plate in time?
“I thought Laird made an amazing play,” Mainieri said. “Umpire called him safe. Game’s over. Have to take our series win and head home.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.