HOOVER, Ala. – Who needs starting pitching?
The Tigers overcame a second sluggish starting pitching performance in 24 hours by flashing their big-hitting guns, and Russell Reynolds shined in relief as LSU beat Arkansas 10-5 to advance to the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals.
Coach Paul Mainieri and his big-swinging boys will have the day off Friday and will meet Arkansas or Florida on Saturday afternoon in a single-elimination game with a trip to Sunday’s title game on the line. Arkansas and Florida meet Friday night in an elimination game.
Top-seeded and No. 1 ranked LSU (48-9) soared to an 18th win in the last 21 games, taking advantage of a season-high six Arkansas errors, battering the Hogs starting pitcher in the second inning and claiming a ninth straight victory in the SEC tournament – a home away from home for Mainieri’s club.
LSU had 12 hits Thursday, the seventh straight game of double-digit knocks and 18th time the Tigers have done that in the last 20 games. It’s all led to this: LSU is now just two wins away from a third straight SEC tournament championship and a sixth in the last eight years of an event Tigers players have dubbed “the LSU Invitational.”
“Whenever we’re rolling as an offense, we’re running, we’re hitting hard line drives through the infield. If we do that, we’re hard to stop offensively,” shortstop Alex Bregman said. “Come out fast and play fast. Make other teams stay with us.”
Jared Foster had two doubles, Bregman drove in three runs and the Tigers jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the second inning and hit the 10-run mark for the 10th time this year. They won despite getting 1.2 innings out of starting pitcher Austin Bain. Bain followed Jared Poché’s one-inning stay Wednesday night with an equally as disturbing start in the shadows of NCAA regionals.
Arguably the nation’s top hitting team, LSU bailed them both out. The Tigers bashed the bumbling, fifth-seeded Hogs (35-21), putting a temporary stop to Dave Van Horn’s streaking team. Arkansas had won 16 of the last 20 games and surged into Thursday night’s game after downing Florida.
The speedy Tigers took advantage of Arkansas catcher Carson Shaddy’s arm, forcing him into two errors in LSU’s four-run first inning, and Foster led off two innings with a double to continue his hot streak here.
“Relaxing, having fun. Got a second chance. Out here having fun,” a beaming Foster said afterward.
Foster went 3 for 4. He’s 5 for 8 with three doubles and a two-run home run in two days at this event. Center fielder Andrew Stevenson had two hits Thursday, and the Tigers got that gem from Reynolds.
He threw 3.1 innings of two-hit scoreless ball and struck out three, entering for the struggling Bain in the second. Jesse Stallings, Hunter Newman and Zac Person each pitched a hitless inning as the Tigers bullpen impressed on a second straight night.
Relievers have allowed four runs in 15 innings in the two games. “We’ve had to throw almost eight innings in the two games,” Reynolds said, “so we’ve shown the bullpen is not a weakness of our team. We don’t know if we have a weakness.”
“The key to the game tonight was that Russell Reynolds came in out of the bullpen and did a tremendous job,” said Mainieri, who pulled Reynolds to keep him available for Sunday’s title game if LSU advances. “Didn’t get a good starting pitching performance, but Reynodls picked (Bain) up and the rest of our bullpen did a good job after that.”
LSU reversed its fortunes from Wednesday night’s first-inning misery.
The Tigers allowed five runs in the first inning of a 9-8 comeback win over Auburn. They had four first-inning runs against Arkansas and starter James Teague on Wednesday. The Hogs had three errors in the 23-minute half-inning – two of those from Shaddy trying to catch an LSU runner stealing second.
Teague had a wild pitch, too, allowing a run to score, and he issued a walk. The first three LSU batters reached base, and the Tigers batted eight to take a 4-0 lead. Chris Chinea had an RBI single, and Conner Hale skied a sac-fly.
LSU added two more in the second inning to take that 6-0 lead on back-to-back, inning-opening doubles from Foster and Mark Laird.
The two-inning outburst had an estimated 3,000 purple-and-gold clad fans roaring, chanting and stomping while bundled up. The temperature at first pitch was 63 degrees and plummeted to the mid-50s by the final out.
Despite the rousing win, LSU saw a second straight starting pitcher slug through a short outing. Bain began the game struggling to find the zone. He threw eight balls in his first 12 pitches, walked his first batter and eventually allowed four hits and four runs.
Mainieri yanked him with two outs in the second inning, marking Bain’s second start of two innings or fewer in the last three weeks. This unfolded a night after Poché allowed three hits, five runs and walked two.
“If we can get past the second inning in a starting pitching performance on Saturday, might start doing cartwheels in the dugout,” Mainieri quipped after the game.
Bain, LSU’s No. 3 hurler, and Poché, the No. 1 guy, combined to allow nine runs and seven hits in a combined 2.2 innings in their starts at the tournament – back-to-back nights that may have some worried.
NCAA regionals begin next Friday – a four-team even in which LSU must win at least three games to advance to what will be a home super regional. The Tigers are considered locks for an NCAA top eight national seed – guaranteeing a home best-of-three super regional – and they could claim the No. 1 overall national seed.
Alex Lange, the SEC freshman of the year, is set to start in Saturday’s game. The rookie from Missouri has struck out 17 and allowed three hits and two runs in his last two starts – a combined 12 innings.
What if he has a bad start?
Well, Foster and this screaming hot hitting lineup proved that might not matter.
“We’ve got to pick each other up,” Foster said. “Pitching had a tough day to start out with but we picked them up.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.