Freshman right-hander Eric Walker lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the eighth, his teammates played error-free defense behind him and drilled Auburn’s other ace pitcher to complete a series sweep against Auburn in impressive fashion.
LSU (35-17, 18-9 Southeastern Conference) blasted Auburn 9-1 in the series finale to keep itself in prime position to compete for a conference title in the final week of the season. By the time the game ended, LSU was the only team in the SEC with 18 conference wins to its credit.
“Guys just laid it all out there for the team this weekend,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “They did what they had to do. Everybody knew what was at stake this weekend.
“They knew that if we got the job done this weekend it would certainly make the last weekend of the season very exciting.”
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LSU capped off its most complete performance in a series this season with its sharpest team game of the series, and it started with Walker.
The last month had been up and down for Walker (6-1), but he was brilliant Saturday. He retired 18 consecutive Auburn hitters after issuing a one-out walk in the first inning, and he came out for the eighth needing six outs to fire the second nine-inning no-hitter by an LSU pitcher.
If Walker would’ve completed the no-hitter, the signature out would’ve been the first out of the eighth, when third baseman Josh Smith speared a missile off the bat of Auburn shortstop Will Holland.
“When you watch MLB games, there’s always that one play that saves (the no-hitter),” Walker said. “I thought that would be it.”
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Smith had almost no time to react to the ball coming at him.
“Honestly I have no clue how I caught it,” Smith said.
But it was not to be. Walker lost his no-hitter with two outs in the eighth when No. 9 hitter Sam Gillikin did the unprobable and drilled a fastball to the opposite field into the teeth of the wind for a solo homer.
“I don’t know how that ball got out of the ballpark,” Mainieri said. “I was as shocked as anybody that it flew out. But give him credit. I guess if you’re going to lose a no-hitter, you might as well lose it on a solo home run.”
Losing the no-hitter stung, but LSU already had established firm control.
Auburn starter Casey Mize (6-2) came into Saturday’s game as one of the nation’s best pitchers, sporting a miniscule 1.39 ERA and a ridiculous 86-9 strikeout to walk ratio.
But LSU handed the sophomore right-hander what was undoubtedly his worst start of an otherwise stellar season.
The home Tigers knocked Mize out after four innings, his shortest start of the season. They did so by tagging him for five earned runs, also a season worst.
LSU was aggressive against Mize, hunting early count pitches it could drive.
“(Hitting coach) Micah Gibbs just talks about hitting the fastball and laying off everything else until there’s two strikes,” junior catcher Michael Papierski said. “That’s what we did. We put the barrel on the ball, and they found holes.”
Like Friday’s game against Auburn ace Keegan Thompson, it was the bottom of the LSU order that did most of the damage against a talented Auburn starter.
The Nos. 5-9 hitters in the LSU order combined to go 6-for-8 against Mize, a figure that does not include a squeeze bunt that brought a run home.
That group got the LSU scoring effort started in the second inning. Nick Coomes led off with a double to right field and three of the next four batters followed with base hits. LSU scored three runs in that inning.
After Mize breezed through the meat of LSU’s order in the third, the bottom of the order got to him again in the fourth.
Papierski, the hero in Friday’s game, delivered again off Mize, tagging him for a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 LSU advantage. Mize would not come back out for the fifth.
LSU added four more runs off a trio of Auburn relievers to pile on.
Auburn lost its seventh consecutive game Saturday. Before getting swept at home by Alabama last week, Auburn was ranked in the top five and was leading the SEC West.
That does not diminish the fact LSU swept a talented and desperate team to set things up for a climactic final week. The Tigers will travel to Starkville, Mississippi. next week with at least a divisional crown on the line.
“It doesn’t get any easier now,” Mainieri said. “This is the time of the year that separates the men from the boys. … You can’t be afraid this time of year, you have to embrace the challenge.”