HOOVER, Ala. — Mike Papierski held both hands near his waist, jumping in agony after absorbing the fastball he tried to bunt up the first base-line in Thursday’s 6-2 win against Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference.
Papierski sat on the foul line, facing an 0-2 count while trainer Cory Couture ensured he was healthy.
The lumbering catcher’s season has mirrored his pain. He hadn’t hit safely since April 22, had not driven in a run since April 2 and was stripped of his starting spot while his backup continued to outpace him.
“It was hard at first, obviously, but you grow from it,” Papierski said. “You learn. That’s not the last time it’s going to happen, you learn and you deal with it and you keep working as hard as you can.”
While Bryce Jordan stood at third, Papierski rose to his feet. He laid off two outside pitches from Mississippi State ace Dakota Hudson.
Then Papierski golfed a low, 2-2 cutter into shallow center field for a sacrifice fly. His RBI drought was over. His team led 2-0.
A hit soon followed.
Later on, Papierski lifted a two-RBI single into shallow left field off Mississippi State reliever Daniel Brown, whom Bulldogs coach John Cohen elected to bring into the game on an 0-2 count to Greg Deichmann.
When Papierski made contact, Cohen threw his clipboard.
“All I saw was sliders, and he hung a slider and I hit the ball,” Papierski said. “But you know, Jared (Poché) kept us in the game, he pitched his butt off. He kept us in the game, threw strikes and got us through those innings.”
The win gave the Tigers a much sought-after off day Friday. They will play the winner of Thursday’s Florida-Mississippi State game in the semifinals — the program’s seventh trip to the semis in eight tournament appearances under Paul Mainieri.
“Tonight was really a very solid performance from our team in every facet,” Mainieri said. “Just a solid game all the way around. Probably one of our better games all year.”
Poché loaded the bases in a 20-pitch, laborious first inning when plate umpire Tony Walsh’s strike zone was small. The Tigers left-hander walked two hitters and was the victim of stealthy SEC Freshman of the Year Jake Mangum, who bunted his first pitch of the game for a leadoff single.
But Poché left them loaded. He did not allow another runner to second until the seventh inning, landing his curveball for strikes early in the count while harnessing precise fastball command. He faced one over the minimum from the third through the sixth innings, before a dropped fly ball in the seventh inning disrupted his rhythm.
“When I started off with a fastball, I was able to put it where they couldn’t do nothing with it,” Poché said. “They swung early in a lot of at-bats, and fortunately for me I was keeping the ball down tonight. I’ve been feeling great, honestly, all year. Arm’s been great. Today was me locating my stuff better.”
Reid Humphreys, who hit the fly ball neither Antoine Duplantis nor Cole Freeman could catch, scored on Jacob Robson’s RPI triple — the first extra-base hit off Poché’s line. Robson came home on Gridley’s RBI groundout. Poché exited two batters later after surrendering his seventh hit of the game.
Parker Bugg entered, fanning No. 3 hitter Gavin Collins to begin his seven-out save.
Ad for Hudson, he depended on a cut fastball in the low 90s that ran in on left-handed hitters. His velocity held steady throughout the game and his command was precise. LSU’s hits were not line drives, instead hard ground balls that found open patches of dirt and grass.
“In 27 at-bats against Dakota, they hit three balls that made it in the outfield in the air,” said a frustrated Cohen. “He got underneath their bats and hit ground balls where we weren’t standing. Three balls out of 27 at-bats, that means you have sync and you’re making them hit it on the ground.”
And when they didn’t, Hudson’s defense neglected to aid its ace that twirled complete game shutouts in his last two starts, though the 6-foot-5 right-hander who is a projected first round pick can’t be completely absolved.
Hudson whiffed on Beau Jordan’s bunt attempt in the fourth inning. It was intended to sacrifice his brother, Bryce, to second base after a seeing-eye single — one of nine singles the Tigers mustered off Hudson. The bunt was instead an error. Beau Jordan scored on Papierski’s sacrifice fly.
Freeman followed with an inning-ending grounder that Mississippi State shortstop Ryan Gridley threw into the stands. The inning continued and the offensive baton was passed.
Duplantis, who finished with three hits, blooped Hudson’s first pitch to the grass in center field. Deichmann scored and the offensive carousel continued.
One more misplay marred the proceedings. In a familiar sight, Bryce Jordan’s seventh-inning fly ball dropped in right field as two players converged. Beau was hit by a pitch. Both made good dirtball reads to advance into scoring position.
Then came Papierski, who ended his struggles.
“Man, I love Pap,” Beau Jordan said. “He works just as hard as everybody. He was due for a hit and it was the biggest one of the game. Worked out perfectly.”