When LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri set his lineup a few days ago for the season-opening game against UL-Monroe, he placed senior outfielder Antoine Duplantis third. If what Mainieri called a “clutch” situation arose, he wanted Duplantis positioned for an at-bat.
Baseball, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns once said, is a game about imperishable hope.
Such a moment happened in the eighth inning Friday night at Alex Box Stadium. No. 1 LSU, which had trailed by as many as three runs, had just taken a one-run lead when Duplantis walked to the plate.
With the bases loaded, Duplantis hit his second home run of the game. This one, a grand slam to right field, propelled the Tigers to a 12-7 win in front of the fourth-highest paid attendance (12,404) in team history.
Not known for his power, Duplantis had hit six home runs during his LSU career. He had never hit more than two in a season. He hit two in the season opener.
“I'll probably hit a bunch of singles and doubles for the rest of the year," Duplantis said, laughing, "cause I only hit two every year at LSU.”
Duplantis and left fielder Daniel Cabrera combined for 11 RBI as LSU (1-0) won its opening game for the 18th straight season. It will play at 2 p.m. Saturday against Army, which started its season with a 17-2 win over Air Force. ULM dropped to 0-1.
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The game started with a rocky outing from junior pitcher Zack Hess. He walked the leadoff batter, who soon scored on a double to straightaway center. Then ULM third baseman Chad Bell crushed a home run to left field, and three batters into the season, LSU trailed 3-0.
LSU chipped at ULM’s lead in the bottom of the first inning when Cabrera drove in two runs with a single over the head of the shortstop, but the Warhawks stretched their lead to 5-2 in the third inning.
LSU scored after ULM extended its lead, and again, it was Cabrera. In the bottom of the third, he smoked a line drive that just cleared the wall in right field, scoring two runs and cutting ULM’s lead to 5-4. As Cabrera finished his trot, he stomped on home plate.
Mainieri planned for Hess to pitch four innings, and that’s about as far as he went. Mainieri pulled him after 3⅔ innings. Hess allowed six hits, five runs (four unearned) and two walks. He struck out four.
“He had trouble throwing his slider today,” Mainieri said. “He was throwing hard, he was just a one-pitch pitcher. … He's going to have to develop that slider with a little more consistency for him to be a quality starting pitcher.”
The following inning, redshirt sophomore Eric Walker made his first appearance since he exited the 2017 College World Series with an injury that led to Tommy John surgery. When LSU started preseason practice, Mainieri pegged Walker as the Sunday starter. But, concerned about his endurance, Mainieri pushed Walker’s first start to next Wednesday.
Walker treated his appearance like a start, replicating his typical pregame routine. Walker allowed a single to the first batter he faced, but then he pitched 2⅓ scoreless innings.
“Baseball is more fun than I remembered,” Walker said.
The early offensive explosions quieted until Cabrera led off the sixth inning with his second home run of the game, this one a solo shot to left-center field. Again, he stomped home plate. LSU had tied the game. Cabrera drove in its first five runs.
The Tigers took their first lead an inning later, when Duplantis launched a two-run home run into the right field stands.
Once he returned to the dugout, Walker asked him, "Where's that juice coming from, man?"
About 10 days ago, Duplantis altered his stance in a way that slowed his bat speed. So, he worked with hitting coach Sean Ochinko to move his hands back.
ULM tied the game in the eighth inning, but Cabrera made a double-play that prevented another run. With a runner on first and one out, Cabrera slid to catch a tailing fly ball. As he popped up, he heard center fielder Zach Watson yelling to throw the ball to first base. Cabrera’s throw reached the bag before the runner.
LSU loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth. Second baseman Brandt Broussard hit a 3-2 pitch right at Bell, who muffed the ball. Broussard reached first on the error. A run scored. Then came Duplantis, and the home run that broke open the game.
“Those opening games,” Mainieri said, “you just never know what to expect.”