HOOVER, Ala . — The LSU Tigers, the rallying, scrapping, fighting-for-every-inch Tigers, had to deal with something else entirely Thursday night against Mississippi State.
Prosperity. A lead. Playing from in front. Being the prey and not the hunter.
Rally possum didn’t have to work any overtime mojo. He found a nice comfy perch in a suite somewhere next to Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and delivered a convincing argument against SEC football scheduling inequities.
The RP’s Tigers took care of business on the field without any of his conjuring. They led throughout, methodically building a lead, overcoming a potentially fatal error in the seventh to paste another big win in their scrapbook.
This one by a score of 6-2 over the SEC regular-season champion Bulldogs, surefire NCAA tournament top eight seed and No. 1 in three of the major polls this week.
The win gives the Tigers a much-needed day off Friday after three straight grinders to start their stay in Hoover and advanced LSU into its reserved parking spot in Saturday’s tournament semifinals. It’s the seventh time in eight appearances under coach Paul Mainieri that the Tigers have reached the SEC semis, a remarkable statistic.
More remarkable than the by-the-numbers nature of Thursday’s game, that’s for certain. LSU required no miracle rallies, no late-inning theatrics (I’m still trying to wrap my mind around LSU using five infielders to get out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam against Florida). Just good solid pitching and clutch hitting.
Pretty ho-hum — unless you’re the coach.
“This,” Mainieri said, “may have been our best overall performance of the season.”
Baseball is a numbers game, and pregame crunch of said numbers had everything trending in Mississippi State’s direction coming into this one.
LSU had won 12 of its last 13, but the Bulldogs had won 12 straight since April 30, making them the SEC’s hottest team going. State hit better, with seven men in the lineup batting better than .300 compared to LSU’s six. State starting pitcher Dakota Hudson had the better numbers (9-3, 2.29 ERA) than LSU starter Jared Poché (6-4, 3.81).
Hudson came in off back-to-back complete-game shutouts, but LSU had picked his lock before. The Tigers battered him for seven runs and 12 hits over 6.1 innings in a 12-8 loss to State back on April 22 in the series opener in Baton Rouge.
LSU lost that game because State tore into Jared Poché just as badly, touching him up for seven runs over six innings.
The season has been a grind for Poché. Really, the struggles go back to his start in LSU’s College World Series opener against TCU last June. After three promising innings that day, Poché ran aground in the fourth with throwing error to first after a simple chopper back to the mound by Cody Jones.
The start of this one looked like trouble for Poché, as well. In the early going, State was clogging the bases like rush hour traffic at the Interstate 10/12 split. Poché alternated base runners for outs in the first, finally wriggling out of trouble when he got Reid Humphreys to bounce into a force out at third. The Bulldogs’ bottom two hitters reached with one-out singles in the second, but Poché got the dangerous Hunter Mangum to end the inning with a double-play grounder to short.
It took a while, but LSU’s offense chased Hudson, leaving him bleeding from a thousand paper cuts when he left after five innings. The Tigers pegged and poked him with nine singles, driving in a run in the third, two in the fourth and another in the fifth to build a 4-0 lead.
But possums aren’t the only animals that rally. Bulldogs do, too. State took advantage of a huge LSU blunder when a pop fly to lead off the seventh by Humphreys bounced off Antoine Duplantis’ glove in shallow right. Second baseman Cole Freeman went out seemingly to make a play on the ball but peeled off at the last minute, and Duplantis couldn’t adjust.
Whether the error was more the fault of Freeman or Duplantis (who was tagged for it), State took quick advantage. Jacob Robson belted an RBI triple to the gap in left-center and rapidly scored himself on a scalded ground out to second by Ryan Gridley. Poche was done after a two-out hit to Jack Kruger, with Parker Bugg coming out of the bullpen to get a huge strikeout of Gavin Collins to preserve a 4-2 LSU lead.
But like the Tigers have a pitching rotation, they have a hero rotation going here in Hoover, too.
Tuesday night, it was Greg Deichmann with his mammoth game-tying home run in the ninth to beat Tennessee. Wednesday night, er, Thursday morning, it was Jordan Romero, shaking off an 0-for-18 slump to drive in the go-ahead run in the 14th against Florida.
Thursday night it was LSU’s other catcher, Michael Papierski. He came in with only a .208 average, but he wielded a big stick in the eighth spot in the LSU lineup. He hit a sacrifice fly to center to bring home Bryce Jordan in the fourth, then bashed a two-out, two-run single to center in the seventh that allowed LSU to reclaim its four-run lead after the Duplantis error.
“He works as hard as anyone on the team,” Beau Jordan said. “He was due for a hit.”
With three wins here to push its overall record to 42-17, LSU is due for a long look from the NCAA baseball committee when it selects the all-important top eight national seeds this weekend. The SEC is overloaded with top-10 teams this year, but the Tigers have played themselves into the weekend of a tournament that looks and feels very much like a Southern-fried version of the College World Series.
If LSU gets two more wins to claim a sixth SEC tourney title under Mainieri, the Tigers must receive a top-eight seed. But the tournament reverts to single elimination with the semifinals, which is where LSU came to an end last year with a 2-1 loss to Florida.
In a single game anything can happen, and the Tigers are certain to be playing Florida or State again after their elimination game Friday. But LSU has put itself in the conversation after two remarkable victories and one that turned out to be routine by comparison.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.