LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn walked to the pitcher’s mound, hobbled by one replaced knee and another he jokes is in need of repair.
Men stood at first and third base with no outs. The pitcher Dunn greeted in the fourth inning of LSU’s 7-1 regional-opening win against Utah Valley savors being in the kind of jam he’d put himself in.
Jared Poché’s plans post-June are unknown. Many anticipate Friday’s six-inning gem that was delayed by six hours will be his final regional appearance in Alex Box Stadium.
This game hung in the balance in the fourth inning, while LSU clung to a three-run lead.
Poché struck out the next two batters.
Not a surprise. Entering Friday, he’d stranded 76.92 percent of the runners he put on base — the highest of any LSU starter.
“In typical fashion,” a spent LSU coach Paul Mainieri said afterward, “(he) wiggled out of a few jams with some clutch pitches. ... It was vintage Jared.”
On a night when he matched his career high with eight strikeouts, Poché permitted six runners. One scored. That fourth-inning jam was the last time Utah Valley mounted a serious threat. Instead, Poché dominated with a curveball early in counts and serviceable command of his fastball.
“I made a couple mistakes this game. The two doubles they hit were pitches over the middle of the plate,” Poché said. “But my fastball command has been so much better in the last two weeks. When I’m landing my breaking ball early on, it really helps out.”
Added Mainieri: “He’s been having a tendency to go to the breaking ball even quicker into the games, like to the first batter of the game, and I think that’s helped him settle into a groove quicker and getting all of his pitches working.”
A day away from starting his second regional opener in three seasons, Poché shrugged off pressure Thursday. He did not feel a heightened responsibility to carry the load for a team that was relatively inexperienced in the postseason. Poché and Jake Fraley were the only returning LSu players who’d started a regional game.
Both buoyed the team anyway.
Fraley smashed Wolverines starter Danny Beddes’ 13th pitch of the game deep into the night which was, at last, clear of precipitation. The teams waited 6½ hours to play the regional opener while thunder, lightning and rain pelted the field.
The home run, 107 mph off the bat and 428 feet away from home plate, dictated a tone Poché carried it through his six innings of one-run baseball.
“I’d like to think (it set the tone),” Fraley said. “It was huge for us, to get that momentum rolling for us, especially that early in the game. Every game you want to do that as an offense. You want to jump out in front like that.”
Beddes was menacing, a 6-foot-6 behemoth right-hander with a low-90s fastball he didn’t command and adrenaline he couldn’t harness. His first pitch of the game — the program’s first pitch in the NCAA baseball tournament — sailed to the backstop at 92 mph.
Beddes entered the game with 51 walks and 13 hit batsmen to accompany 96 strikeouts. Plate umpire Anthony Carilli had a small strike zone, not aiding in the senior’s evening. Seven of the 16 hitters he faced went to three-ball counts. Four walked in Beddes’ three-inning stint that left his team trailing 4-1.
“I think the environment got to him a little bit,” Utah Valley coach Eric Madsen said. “He’s done that before. I thought he’d settle in throughout the game as he’s done in the past. The home run, I think, surprised him. He was just putting it on the plate and seeing what results would come.”
Greg Deichmann added an opposite-field, two-run home run in the seventh, LSU’s 10th hit on a 12-hit evening. His two-out RBI single in the third ended Beddes’ night.
All starters recorded at least one hit. The Tigers put a runner in scoring position in all nine innings, and Paul Mainieri was able to empty his bench in the eighth inning of a methodical victory against a team it did not overlook.
“Really a good workmanlike performance in our first game,” Mainieri said. “I didn’t think our young players who have not played in a postseason showed any nerves at all.”