HOOVER, Ala. — Finally, LSU got the starting pitching at this year’s Southeastern Conference tournament.
But the shutdown bullpen and clutch hitting went missing.
Relievers blew a one-run lead, wasting a stellar start from Alex Lange, and the Tigers stranded eight runs in a 2-1 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals Saturday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
JJ Schwarz hit a game-tying double in the eighth inning, and Mike Rivera launched the eventual game-winning solo homer in the ninth to send the Gators (43-16) to the SEC tournament championship game Sunday against Vanderbilt.
Schwarz’s leadoff shot in the top of the ninth against reliever Jesse Stallings flew over the left-field wall and snapped the Tigers’ hot streak here in front of a mostly purple-and-gold-clad 11,000.
LSU (48-10) had won nine straight games at this event and had won the past two tournaments. Coach Paul Mainieri lost just his fifth tournament game in seven years at the event.
A lock for an NCAA top-eight national seed, LSU’s eyes now turn to Monday, when the NCAA releases the full tournament field. Regional hosts will be announced at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
“We’ll regroup and get back home, watch the selection show on Monday and get ready for the NCAA tournament. This is what you play all year for: a chance to go play for the national championship,” Mainieri said. “One loss is not going to hurt our confidence, self-confidence.”
Lange’s confidence grew.
He allowed five hits, struck out seven and fought through a career-high six walks in a seven-inning nod that included a trio of great escapes. The rookie from Missouri is in line to start Game 2 of the NCAA regionals Saturday, if LSU can beat a No. 4 seed Friday night.
Mainieri, after the game, admitted who this team’s ace is: Lange.
“Obliviously,” he said, “the big fellow to my right here is ace in every sense of the word.”
Lange’s hitters and relievers couldn’t deliver him an 11th victory.
The Tigers clung to a 1-0 lead from the second to the eighth innings before the bullpen faltered. Entering for Lange to start the eighth, Zac Person allowed a leadoff single and walked a batter before Schwarz hit a game-tying double off the left-center-field wall against Hunter Newman.
Mainieri inserted Stallings, formerly the Tigers’ closer, to start the ninth. Rivera launched his 1-2 pitch, a high changeup, into the Florida bullpen beyond the left-field wall.
In a tie game to start the ninth, Mainieri kept late-game ace Parker Bugg in the bullpen, deciding on Stallings because Florida hitters were having trouble hitting high velocity. Stallings pumped 94- to 96-mph fastballs mostly for strikes.
“Parker doesn’t throw as hard as Jesse does,” Mainieri said. “They were showing they were having trouble with the velocity all day (against Lange). Ironic, they still had trouble with the velocity, but the one pitch that got away was a changeup. Outside of that, his fastball dominated.
The game played out in reverse fashion to LSU’s first two wins at this tournament Wednesday and Thursday. The Tigers’ two starters lasted a combined 2.2 innings. Relievers shined, allowing four runs in more than 15 innings, and LSU’s offense banged out 22 hits and 19 runs.
“We stranded a lot of runners,” said second baseman Jared Foster, who drove in LSU’s only run. “We’ve got to be more clutch when it comes to runners in scoring position. Got to get them in, get them over. It was unfortunate today. We didn’t handle our business.”
It was unusual. LSU’s one run marked just the fifth time in 58 games that this offense scored two or fewer runs.
“I feel like the offense … wasn’t their typical selves. But that’s our job as a pitching staff: to pick us up. They picked us up all year,” Lange said.
Lange’s command wasn’t the best, but he showed consistent velocity in the mid 90s, even hitting 94 with his final pitch in the seventh inning.
He threw 59 strikes in his 100 pitches, had those six walks and hit one batter. But the rookie from Missouri worked himself out of two pressure-packed situations on a warm day in the Birmingham suburb.
Three straight Gators reached base — two walks and a hit-by-pitch — before Lange got Schwarz, Florida’s home-run hitter, to fly out. Lange again loaded the bases in the fourth — two reached on walks — before striking out No. 1 hitter Dalton Guthrie.
Lange stranded two runners with a strikeout on his 100th pitch to end the seventh.
“Alex Lange was just terrific again, as he always is,” Mainieri said. “Pitched out of some tough situations. Made some really big pitches. Showed amazing poise and competitive zeal. It’s a shame we couldn’t get him a win.”
Offensively, the Tigers wasted chances, stranding five runners through the first three innings. Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird both struck out with two runners in scoring position each inning.
In the third, Jake Fraley, after reaching on an error and stealing second, was picked off. Conner Hale and Kade Scivicque followed with consecutive singles to chase Florida starter Alex Faedo eight outs into the game.
The Tigers stranded Hale and Scivicque.
“We were trying to do our best to get guys in,” Foster said. “Hit the ball hard and have good at-bats. Didn’t happen like that today. (We’ll) bounce back from it and get prepared for the regional. Show them what we’ve been doing all year.”