HOOVER, Ala. — LSU’s lineup knocked around a talented starting pitcher and combined that with an excellent fill-in performance by the hometown kid to beat Missouri 10-3 in its Southeastern Conference Tournament opener on Wednesday night.
LSU pounded out 10 runs on 11 hits in the contest and had 17 total players reach base, while Hoover native Caleb Gilbert logged five strong innings to keep the game one-sided.
With the win, LSU won its eighth consecutive game and moved into the winners' bracket, where it will face tournament No. 3 seed Kentucky. LSU also snapped Missouri’s seven-game win streak.
It was LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s 500th win at LSU.
Missouri left-hander T.J. Sikkema came into Wednesday’s game with an SEC best .169 opponent’s batting average.
“He was very deceptive and he obviously had very good numbers,” said LSU second baseman Cole Freeman, who finished the night 4-for-4 with four RBIs. “We took that on as a challenge.”
Sikkema had never given up more than five hits in a single appearance, and 13 of his 21 appearances were scoreless outings, including a shutout against Tennessee in his last start.
But LSU came into the game hitting an SEC-best .313 against left-handed pitching, and Missouri coach Steve Bieser said Sikkema did not have anywhere close to his best stuff Wednesday evening.
The Tigers plated five runs on eight hits before a heavy rain rolled through at 5:59 p.m. and caused the game to be suspended in the bottom of the fifth with one out and runners at the corners. That 1 hour, 21-minute rain delay effectively chased Sikkema from the game.
“I really hate that for T.J., because I think people saw him on the worst night of his college career,” Bieser said. “His fastball wasn’t very crisp, his off-speed didn’t have much depth. They didn’t see the real T.J. Sikkema tonight.”
As has often been the case lately, it was the bottom of the order that kickstarted LSU’s offensive engine.
LSU’s No. 8 hitter Michael Papierski led off the third inning by drawing a six-pitch walk, then got on his horse when No. 9 hitter Zach Watson drilled a sinking liner to the gap in right-center field for a double.
Papierski rounded third and was waved home by third base coach Nolan Cain. He slid around the tag to score from first base.
“Really, these last three weeks, the story has been the bottom third of our order and what they’ve done," Mainieri said. "It’s made us into a really good, balanced offensive team.”
The top of the order followed their lead, with four of the next five batters churning out productive at-bats.
The last of four LSU runs in the inning came across when Mizzou right fielder Kirby McGuire lost his footing trying to catch a routine fly ball from Nick Coomes in shallow right field.
LSU added two more in the fifth — one right before the game was suspended, and another immediately after play resumed — then poured on with a four-run eighth inning.
Most of that eighth inning rally can be attributed to Cole Freeman, who capped a four-hit night with a three-run blast down the left field line.
All this backed up an excellent performance by the LSU pitching staff, starting with Gilbert.
LSU announced late Tuesday night that Gilbert would start in place of projected starter Todd Peterson after Peterson was suspended for a violation of team rules.
“I was disappointed I had to use him, but he did a remarkable job once he got the opportunity,” Mainieri said.
All Gilbert did was follow with five outstanding innings in his hometown, stifling a Mizzou lineup that had scored 12 runs against Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
The only blemish on Gilbert’s line was a one-out homer by left fielder Kameron Misner in the second inning on a 1-1 slider that Gilbert left up.
Gilbert threw a season-high 69 pitches in the outing, and did not return to the game after an 81-minute rain delay. It was his second start in an SEC tournament game in his hometown, and this time his heart wasn’t racing as much.
“The nerves weren’t there,” Gilbert said. “It was just more going out, attacking hitters and giving the team the chance to win.”
The trio of Nick Bush, Zack Hess and Matthew Beck combined to allow two runs in four innings of relief.
Two of Missouri’s three runs came home on solo home runs, and the other reached on an error.
LSU’s contest against Kentucky will feature LSU ace Alex Lange against the SEC Pitcher of the Year in Kentucky right-hander Sean Hjelle. The winner will advance to the tournament semifinal.
“It’s two of the best teams in the country going against each other, two teams that could be playing in Omaha at the end of the year,” said senior shortstop Kramer Robertson. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere, with great pitchers and great players.”