STARKVILLE, Miss. — Fireworks erupted outside of Dudy Noble Field as one team clinched a division championship with the last out of the ninth inning Friday night.
The fireworks were probably meant for someone else.
LSU thumped Mississippi State 11-5 to clinch its final regular-season series, a Southeastern Conference Western Division title and an opportunity to play for the outright SEC title Saturday.
It was the Tigers' 10th win in 11 conference games — a surge that pushed them from a middling 10-8 in SEC play to a 20-9 division champion. It marked LSU’s sixth SEC West title in 11 years under coach Paul Mainieri.
“I’m sure there’s not too many people that predicted a month ago that we would be the Western Division champions,” Mainieri said. “But we’re finishing strong.”
It’s also the fourth time Mainieri has guided his team to 20 wins in conference play. Each of the first three times, the Tigers went on to become a top-eight national seed and earn a College World Series berth.
“We’ve really been clicking, and this is the time to click,” said catcher Michael Papierski, who contributed two crucial hits Friday. “We had a little bump in the road (earlier this season), but we figured it out.”
LSU clinched this title by winning the first two games against its old hitting coach, Andy Cannizaro. And after riding the right arm of Alex Lange in Thursday night's opener, the Tigers took the series behind their selective and opportunistic lineup.
Mississippi State out-hit LSU 10-8, but the Bulldogs also handed over a couple of runs because of their inability to locate the strike zone.
MSU issued 11 walks and hit two more batters, clogging the bases and making LSU’s eight hits carry more weight. Those walks hurt Mississippi State right away.
Freshman right-hander Denver McQuary put the first three LSU batters on base via walk or hit by pitch, loading the bases before the Tigers put a ball in play.
“We knew going in that their pitcher had some streaks of wildness,” Mainieri said. “I told our guys, ‘Don’t go up there looking for a walk; go up there and earn walks. ... Be ready to hit.’ ”
Greg Deichmann brought the first run home on an RBI groundout, and Nick Coomes followed with a bloop double down the right-field line that gave LSU a three-run lead before Mississippi State came to the plate.
The Bulldogs battled back, tying the score with a three-run fifth inning off Jared Poché (9-3), who now has nine wins in each of his four seasons at LSU. Poché allowed eight hits and four runs in five innings.
But LSU wasn’t close to being done.
“One of our big offensive philosophies is that you have to answer back immediately,” Coomes said. ”The longer you sit around and wait, the more confident they get. When they came and tied it up and this place was rocking like it does, we knew we had to answer.”
The Tigers sent 10 batters to the plate in the sixth to score four runs and storm to an 8-4 lead. They did it by swinging at the stuff they could hit and laying off pitches out of the strike zone.
LSU saw 43 pitches from four different pitchers in that inning. It regained the lead on Papierski’s RBI single up the middle to score Josh Smith, who had led the inning off with a double.
But the Tigers piled on with plate discipline. After a Cole Freeman walk loaded the bases, the next three players in the lineup drew walks of their own. Two of those walks scored runs, and another run came home on a wild pitch.
Papierski put an exclamation point on the win with a long home run to right field in the seventh inning, his seventh homer of the season.
“As the game went on, I thought we started swinging the bat a lot better and we did what it took to win today,” Mainieri said.
Zack Hess struck out six in 3.2 brilliant innings of scoreless relief to earn his first career save. He entered the game when the Bulldogs still had a window to make a game out of it. They’d put two on against Caleb Gilbert and had SEC Triple Crown categories leader Brent Rooker representing the tying run in the on deck circle with one out and the top of the order due.
Hess defused the rally with two strikeouts. The first six outs Hess recorded came by strikeout and, including his perfect eighth inning in Thursday’s win, Hess has struck out eight in 4.2 scoreless innings against Mississippi State this weekend.
“It’s big playing behind a guy like that,” Coomes said. “When he shuts the door like that, it gives them no hope.”
Speaking of no hope, that seemed to summarize the feeling in Baton Rouge after LSU dropped two games in Kentucky and did not look good in the two games it lost. A 10-2 loss in the series finale in Lexington dropped LSU to 10-8 in SEC play and 27-14 overall. Since then, LSU has won 11 of 14.
Kramer Robertson, who finished Friday’s game with three hits to raise his batting average above .300 for the first time since mid-April, basked in that achievement.
“There’s not many things that feel better," he said, "than when you can prove people wrong."