With two runners on base and his pitch count climbing over 20, the first inning of Zack Hess’ start Friday night against Bryant started to look like the one he had to open the season a week ago.
The LSU junior pitcher recorded outs on consecutive strikeouts, but he hit one batter, walked another. A runner already stood in scoring position, much like the beginning of the season opener, in which Hess gave up three runs in the first inning.
This time, Hess induced a fly ball to end the inning without allowing a run. Though at least one runner reached base in each of the five innings he pitched, Hess’ start went much better as the No. 1 Tigers avoided a late rally to beat Bryant 13-6 at Alex Box Stadium.
"I thought we played a really, really terrific game — for about six innings," coach Paul Mainieri said.
Bill Franques, the 'Voice of Alex Box Stadium' and an integral part of LSU baseball, underwent surgery Friday to address prostate cancer.
Hess made a mechanical adjustment in between starts, raising his leg kick to its height last summer, when he allowed no runs over nine innings with the U.S. Collegiate National Team.
Hess was a one-pitch pitcher during his first start, and LSU (5-0) wanted him to throw strikes early in the count and command his three pitches — fastball, slider and changeup — against Bryant (2-2).
Hess fell behind in a handful of counts, particularly in the first inning, which led to two walks. He also hit two batters. But Hess mixed speeds, throwing 95 mph one pitch then dropping to 80 mph another. He struck out at least two batters on off-speed pitches during the second inning. He ended the game with six strikeouts.
"Last week I didn't feel like it was too far off," Hess said. "I felt like it was that one little thing that was hindering me from doing what I can do. Tonight felt like a step in the right direction."
With a high chance of thunderstorms Saturday, LSU baseball has moved Game 2 of its weekend series vs. Bryant to 7 p.m.
While Hess held Bryant to one run through five innings — Bryant later scored five runs off Tigers relievers — LSU piled on runs.
Sometime after Tuesday’s one-run win over Southeastern, coach Paul Mainieri altered his starting lineup, giving freshman Giovanni DiGiacomo his first start.
"If it wasn't for us having such a tremendous three-man outfield already," Mainieri said, "he'd be a starting player as a freshman."
DiGiacomo, who batted second, replaced Saul Garza as the designated hitter. Hal Hughes climbed to seventh from ninth, and Brandt Broussard moved to the bottom of the order. Broussard had batted second to open the season.
The game was scoreless in the second inning when Hughes walked to the plate for his first at-bat after Zach Watson got hit by a pitch and Cade Beloso, who made his second start at first base, singled.
Hughes whiffed on a hit-and-run, but Watson stole third base anyway. The catcher’s throw sailed into left field, allowing Watson to score and Beloso to reach third. Beloso scored on a single by Hughes, and LSU opened an early two-run lead.
Who's starting, how to watch and what to watch for during LSU baseball's game Saturday against Bryant.
Mainieri challenged the players during practices this week. He told them they had given up on at-bats during the Tigers' first four games, Beloso said, and abandoned the game plan.
"We took that personally," Beloso said. "You don't want to be known as an easy out."
By the time the Tigers batted in the fifth inning, they led 6-1. They soon blew open the game.
Beloso, who finished the game 3 for 4, led off the inning with a single. Two LSU hitters reached on fielding errors, loading the bases. Shortstop Josh Smith smacked a two-run double down the right-field line. DiGiacomo followed with a single, his second hit of the game, scoring another two runs.
"Our hitters were so much better tonight," Mainieri said.
Though all four runs were unearned, LSU led by nine — a lead it almost gave up.
LSU's bullpen lost its command throughout the seventh and eighth innings as Bryant threatened to tie the game. Eric Walker gave up three runs and Aaron George allowed a home run.
With two outs in the eighth inning, Matthew Beck walked the bases loaded. He walked the next batter, too, cutting LSU's lead to four runs and bringing the tying run to the plate.
Beck slid into a 2-1 count against his third hitter, and Mainieri pulled him mid at-bat for Devin Fontenot, who ended the inning with a strikeout. Daniel Cabrera added a three-run home run, and LSU stretched out a comfortable lead once again.
"There were a lot of good things tonight," Mainieri said. "I hate for a little bit of sloppiness to take away from a really good win."