Cole Freeman was eating breakfast with some friends Saturday morning when he saw his phone light up with a text message from LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
“He said, ‘Look, I need you to be the leader that you are. Step up, fly around and be big for us tonight,’ ” Freeman said. “I responded, ‘Yes sir; I’ll get it done tonight.’ ”
Freeman stayed true to his word.
After delivering the big hit that had eluded LSU through 13 innings against South Carolina, Freeman slid into third base, popped to his feet and thumped his chest as the crowd went delirious around him Saturday night at Alex Box Stadium.
He finally gave them something to celebrate. Before Freeman sneaked a line drive just inside the first-base line for a two-run go-ahead triple in the fifth inning of the Tigers' 5-2 win, LSU had gone 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position in the series.
Freeman’s big hit woke up the LSU bats and powered a victory that knotted the series at one game apiece.
“That’s what leadership is: stepping up and getting the big hit when we haven’t had a clutch hit in a game and a half,” Mainieri said. “All of a sudden, (Freeman) steps up with two strikes and smokes one down in the corner to give us two runs.”
The Tigers were being shut out by big South Carolina right-hander Adam Hill (3-4) before Freeman came to the rescue. Hill defused potential LSU rallies in the first and third innings by retiring slugger Greg Deichmann.
Hill had not given up more than three runs in any of his previous 10 starts this season. That changed Saturday.
The rally started when Michael Papierski and Zach Watson, the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, reached base to start the inning. A failed bunt attempt by Kramer Robertson didn’t matter when Freeman scorched one down the line.
It seemed to unlock the lid that held all the clutch hits LSU (31-16, 14-9 Southeastern Conference) couldn’t find in the series opener.
“Once he got that hit, you could just feel the entire team exhale in the dugout,” Mainieri said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can actually get a clutch hit.’ Guys loosened up a little bit, and all of a sudden we started swinging the bats a little more aggressively, a little more confidently.”
Freeman immediately came home to score when Duplantis tagged a sacrifice fly to deep center field. The Tigers tacked on two more runs in the ensuing inning on Watson’s two-out single to shallow right field.
That outburst backed up an outstanding effort from senior left-hander Jared Poché, who stifled South Carolina (27-18, 11-12) over seven strong innings.
Most importantly, Poché always found a way to steady himself when he looked like he was on the brink of losing control.
He loaded the bases in the third and fourth innings because he could not find plate umpire Ryan Morehead’s strike zone.
“Command for me was in and out,” Poché said.
He walked two and gave up his first hit in the third inning, loading the bases with two outs. But he kept the Gamecocks off the board when he pumped strike three past South Carolina’s No. 3 hitter, Carlos Cortes.
In the fourth, South Carolina followed a leadoff double with a pair of walks, loading the bases with one out. Poché was able to fool Hunter Taylor with two strikes for a big second out, but then walked No. 9 hitter Madison Stokes on five pitches to bring home a run.
Poché got out of the inning with a ground ball to second base, then went into cruise control from there.
Poché only allowed two base runners in three efficient innings after his shaky stretch in the middle of the game. He was at 81 pitches to close the fourth inning, but needed nine, nine and 14 to get through the next three innings and hand a four-run lead to LSU's relievers.
“It was huge for me to get through seven and hand it off to the bullpen,” Poché said.
Hunter Newman recorded his seventh save of the season when he got Cortes to bounce into a 4-6-3 game-ending double play.
LSU will go into the series finale 1½ games out of first place in the SEC standings.