Someone on LSU’s baseball team made a comment earlier this week after Mark Laird’s inside-the-park home run in a win at Tulane.
“Mark Laird has more home runs than Chris Chinea,” that person cracked.
Chinea hit an inside-the-park homer of his own, and LSU got another gem from freshman starter Alex Lange in a 7-3 win Saturday night at Alex Box Stadium, evening the series.
Chinea’s inside-the-parker — ruled a double before a review — brought home three runs and broke a 2-2 tie, and Jared Foster followed with his sixth homer of the season.
“Somebody was remarking that Mark Laird had more home runs than Chris Chinea this year. Think he took that personal,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “He said, ‘Hey, what you can do, I can do better.’ ”
Lange struck out 13 — for a second straight time in a start at home — and left fielder Jake Fraley made a run-saving catch in the top of the eighth, helping deliver a victory on a cool night at The Box.
Alden Cartwright, in his first game back from recovering from the flu, closed the game in the ninth inning, sending LSU to a third straight rubber match in a third Southeastern Conference series of the season. That’s the first time that has happened since 2009, the Tigers’ most recent national championship season.
Ranked No. 1 in the nation by five of six polls, the Tigers (23-4, 5-3) rebounded from Friday night’s 5-4 loss in 12 innings against the Wildcats (17-10, 4-4), surging with that five-run eighth and continuing to see Lange blossom.
“It’s a shame he didn’t get credited for the win,” Mainieri said. “Amazing performance.”
Zac Person got the win, but he allowed the Wildcats to tie the score at 2 in the eighth, giving up three singles.
Meanwhile, Lange worked out of some pressure-packed jams on a night when he had a career-high five walks. He stranded runners at third base twice via strikeouts, and he left eight Kentucky runners on board in his seven-inning, 116-pitch outing.
“The strikeouts were nice. They’re fun. That’s a cool stat, and you guys love that,” Lange said. “But I’m looking at the five walks. That’s not acceptable.”
Chinea, the first baseman who had dropped in the batting order recently, stole the show with that inside-the-park homer in the eighth. Hit hard, the ball skipped past diving center fielder Kyle Barrett and got wedged under the wall.
Umpires originally called it a ground-rule double. They reviewed the play — the second review of the game — and overturned the call, sending the estimated 8,000-plus at The Box roaring.
“I’ve been working with Mark Laird, who hit one the other day,” Chinea said through a smile. “He taught me how to do inside-the-parkers. I took his advice, worked in the cage, and happened to do it.”
Chinea, known as LSU’s hardest hitter on a measurement of exit speed, routinely hits balls out of the park in batting practice. Just this week, he hit the top of the Alex Box scoreboard in left field twice.
He hasn’t had one in a game, though — until Saturday’s line drive to center. The game was stopped momentarily after Mainieri vehemently argued the original call.
“I went over (the ground rules) before the game,” Mainieri said. “If you can see the ball under the outfield fence, they have to got get it. Everybody in the world could see the ball was there. Umpire reached in and grabbed it himself.”
Kentucky right fielder Marcus Carson threw his hands in the air as the ball pinned under the wall, and LSU third-base coach Will Davis waved Chinea home.
“I’m not the fastest guy on the team, so when I saw him waving, I knew something had to have happened,” Chinea said. “When I got the arm wave, I was like, ‘Let’s go home.’ ”
Foster followed with a two-run homer that cleared the left-field bleachers, and the rout was on.
UK could have had more in the eighth inning against Person, but Fraley made a running grab on Connor Heady’s line drive to the warning track near the left-field corner.
So, now another rubber match. LSU lost the first game of last weekend’s series at Arkansas before winning the final two. It was just the second time the Tigers had done that in an SEC series since 2010. They had lost the first game of a series 10 times during that stretch.
“It’s satisfying to know that we split the first two games and have a chance to win the series, even though we haven’t played our best game of the weekend yet,” Mainieri said.
Lange didn’t have his best, but it was good enough. He didn’t allow an earned run. Kentucky knotted the score at 1 with help from a passed ball in the sixth.
Lange used strikeouts to wiggle out of a pair of earlier-than-normal jams. Kentucky left a combined five runners stranded in the second and third innings. In the third, the Wildcats had a man at each base and one out before Lange struck out designated hitter Storm Wilson and Carson.
Both were on three pitches. Lange, a mild-mannered kid from the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, even showed some emotion. He gave a small fist pump and stared down the right-field line before barking something as he raced toward the LSU dugout.
Lange has started in his LSU career in striking fashion.
Halfway through the season, he has 58 strikeouts in 45 innings, and he has walked 15.
“The kid is remarkable, really,” Mainieri said. “He pitches in the clutch. He’s something special.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.