No. 10 South Carolina ruined Saturday night for the largest crowd in LSU baseball history by scoring two ninth-inning runs and giving the second-ranked Tigers their first home loss in Southeastern Conference play 4-2 at Alex Box Stadium.
The game featured numerous uncharacteristic happenings. Usually reliable shortstop Alex Bregman made two errors; one started a two-run rally in the first, and the other started the Gamecocks’ winning rally.
Tigers closer Chris Cotton (2-1) got his first loss in 12 career decisions, yielding the final two runs, the second of which came home on a rare balk call.
That call led LSU coach Paul Mainieri to charge out of the dugout to argue, and home-plate umpire Fred Cannon ejected Mainieri for just the second time in his seven seasons as Tigers coach.
“It was a frustrating night,” Mainieri said. “(The ejection) was the last in a long line of frustrating things tonight.”
LSU outhit South Carolina 14-8 but had just two hits and 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position, and neither of those hits drove in a run as the Tigers stranded 10 runners.
“It’s frustrating because we’re normally a team that gets it done,” said catcher Ty Ross, who was the only Tiger who didn’t get a hit but drove in both runs with a sacrifice fly and a groundout. “Getting clutch hits is what it takes to win championships and win these close games. South Carolina got their clutch hits, and they ended up beating us.”
The Tigers (39-5, 16-4) will try to avoid their first series loss of the season when they meet the Gamecocks (32-12, 11-9) in the series finale at 2 p.m. Sunday. The crowd Saturday was 10,246.
“We beat a great team in an incredible baseball environment tonight,” Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook said. “Our pitchers were terrific, and Tanner (English) got the big hit for us.”
Grayson Greiner led off the ninth with a ground ball that Bregman mishandled.
“I tried to come in and get that last (hop), and it hit off the palm of my glove,” Bregman said. “There’s no excuse for it. I should have made the play.”
Connor Bright struck out trying to sacrifice before English ripped a Cotton pitch into the gap in right-center for a triple that broke a 2-2 tie.
“The pitch was flat,” Cotton said. “It was a two-seam fastball that was supposed to run away. It was down the middle, and he got a piece of it.”
After English’s hit, Cannon called Cotton (2-1) for a balk, sending English home.
“I thought I came set, but I guess I didn’t,” Cotton said. “I guess I sped up maybe and didn’t come set and he called a balk on me. I should have come set longer. The run scored off of it, and I didn’t do my job. He called what he saw.”
LSU starter Ryan Eades pitched much better than he had in his previous two starts, both of which ended after he allowed five runs through four innings. This time, he allowed just six hits and two runs, both unearned, in seven innings.
“My confidence was fine,” he said. “Those last two starts were rocky, but they didn’t do anything to my confidence. I’m still positive, and I felt great.”
Joey Bourgeois relieved to start the eighth. He gave up a leadoff single and threw a wild pitch before getting the next three batters in order before Cotton came in to start the ninth.
Gamecocks starter Jordan Montgomery matched Eades, but he had to work out of trouble more often. He allowed 10 hits and two runs in seven innings.
Adam Westmoreland (5-1) pitched a scoreless eighth, and Tyler Webb pitched the ninth for his 13th save.
The first two LSU batters reached in the ninth: JaCoby Jones led off with a double, and Jared Foster reached on an infield single. But Sean McMullen and Mark Laird struck out before Bregman flied out to deep center.
South Carolina’s Graham Saiko led off the game with a grounder to shortstop that Bregman mishandled for an error. Chase Vergason singled and Joey Pankake sacrificed the runners to second and third.
LB Dantzler singled home one run and, one out later, Brison Celek singled home another. Both runs were unearned.
LSU cut the deficit in half in the second when Raph Rhymes led off with a double, advanced on Christian Ibarra’s grounder and scored on Ross’ sacrifice fly.
The Tigers squandered a scoring opportunity in the third. Laird, Bregman and Mason Katz had consecutive one-out singles to load the bases, but Rhymes hit a grounder to Pankake at short, and Pankake stepped on second and threw to first for an inning-ending double play.
Mainieri decided to give the ball to Kurt McCune for his first SEC start Sunday. McCune has made five appearances since returning from a back injury. He’s 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA.
“I’m super excited,” McCune said, “especially with the situation we’re in where the series is even and trying to go out there and win the game and the series. I definitely feel I’ve gotten better every game. I’m ready as I’m ever going to be.
“If I continue to throw strikes the way I have in my recent outings, I should have some success.”