Alan Dunn instructs his pitchers, forcefully, of one requirement.
“If a team is going to beat you,” the LSU pitching coach says, “they’ve got to beat you by putting the ball in play on you.”
Vanderbilt’s Jeren Kendall obliged.
Kendall got out on his front foot, fisting LSU closer Caleb Gilbert’s 2-2 slider for a go-ahead, three-run home run in the eighth inning of Saturday’s 9-7 win, which prevented the Tigers (21-10, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) from sweeping the Commodores for the first time since 1997.
Ro Coleman, scratched before the game with an illness, willed a two-out single through the right side against LSU closer Caleb Gilbert.
That hit began a brutal eighth-inning stretch for the freshman right-hander who was relied upon for a six-out save but, instead, saw the two-strike pitch barely clear the right field wall — the third straight two-out hit he’d allowed and the fourth of the day for Kendall.
“I guess I left some pitches over the plate and they did what they were supposed to,” Gilbert said. “If he hit it out of the park, (the pitch location) wasn’t good enough. He did a good job of extending the hands and getting it out of here.”
Added Dunn: “Battled the guy tough, makes the pitch. Probably not exactly the location you want. The guy goes out and fists the ball and hits the ball in the seats … He didn’t give them anything.”
Kendall, moved into the leadoff spot when Ro Coleman was scratched pregame, had three singles and the home run. Batting second, Bryan Reynolds added a towering home run of his own in the first inning and a seventh-inning RBI double off LSU reliever Parker Bugg.
The two combined for seven RBIs. Vanderbilt scored nine runs.
“Kendall’s one of the best players in the country, one of the best players in the league. You tip your hat to him,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said of the eighth inning. “Their player beat our player at that particular moment. It wasn’t a terrible pitch.”
Called into service early after an atypical, erratic outing from starter John Valek III, the LSU bullpen duo of Doug Norman and Bugg pieced together a three-inning stint while surviving a seventh-inning Vanderbilt rally.
Norman steadied the situation with two innings of two-hit ball in relief of Valek, who was unusually erratic and lasted just four innings in his shortest start as a Tiger. Norman left in favor of Parker Bugg in the seventh.
Bugg, inserted with the tying run on base and his team clinging to a two-run lead for a second straight Sunday, stranded the runner at third base with a four-pitch strikeout of Ethan Paul, who chased a slider down and in to end the seventh.
“I wasn’t getting ahead of hitters as much as I normally do,” Valek said. “They were laying off my offspeed pitches, not chasing much, getting in good counts for them to hit. They had a couple hard-hit balls, a couple balls that found holes. So that’s baseball.”
Valek, who threw just 40 strikes in 68 pitches, walked two hitters in his four-inning stint. He’d allowed just four walks all season entering the start.
LSU was unable to offer more run support, scoring in just two innings. Its four-run fifth came when Vanderbilt cycled through three relief pitchers who allowed four hits, two walks and a costly wild pitch.
Matt Ruppenthal — inserted in the fifth with two on, one out and Vanderbilt ahead by one — delivered eight straight balls before exiting with the bases loaded. Collin Snider entered, allowing a two-strike, two-RBI single through the six-hole off Beau Jordan’s bat, putting LSU up 6-4.
The Tigers managed just three more hits — two in a furious ninth-inning rally.
Greg Deichmann doubled into the right field corner and a Kramer Robertson singled two batters later.
Vanderbilt closer Ben Bowden stranded them, getting Beau Jordan to pop out and completing the six-out save that eluded Gilbert.
“It’s a little bit tough to swallow, you’re four outs from sweeping Vanderbilt, but I thought we played outstanding defense and hit the ball well again,” Robertson said. “There’s nothing to hang our heads about because I thought all three games we played extremely well.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome