Senior closer Hunter Newman did not think Cole Freeman could reach the soft liner off the bat of Ole Miss' Bryan Seamster with two outs in the ninth.
The potential tying run was in motion on contact, and Seamster's line drive looked like it would sail into right field. Newman remembered thinking to himself: Man, there goes a run right there.
Freeman wasn’t much more optimistic.
“Right off the bat, in my head, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get this,’ ” Freeman said.
It was an instinct play, Freeman said. He took a direct angle to the ball in shallow right field, timed his jump, left his feet and came down with the ball to secure LSU's 3-2 series-clinching win Saturday at Alex Box Stadium.
“I’m sure glad he’s (5-foot-8) and not 5-7,” coach Paul Mainieri said of Freeman. “I told him, 'Don’t ever let anybody tell you you’re short again.' ”
It was the last of three Ole Miss rallies the Tigers (25-12, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) suppressed in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, each time stranding the tying run in scoring position.
“That’s kind of the job description of being a bullpen guy,” said freshman Zack Hess, who wiggled out of a pair of those jams. “You’re never going to come in a situation where things are going to be easy. Every pitch you throw is going to really count.”
Freshman right-hander Eric Walker (5-0) was magnificent for the third consecutive outing. He gave up two runs in 6.2 innings, striking out six against no walks.
Walker retired 18 of the first 21 batters he faced before he appeared to run out of steam in the seventh inning. Walker was efficient Saturday, needing just 66 pitches to get through the first six innings and only going to a three-ball count to one of the 25 batters he faced.
The only run the Rebels scored in those first six innings was on Tate Blackman’s solo shot with two outs in the third. It was Blackman’s third home run in the series.
Blackman committed an error on a routine ground ball in the bottom of the second that allowed LSU to take a 1-0 lead.
LSU wasted no time getting the lead back after the Blackman homer, though. Greg Deichmann clubbed a solo shot of his own to right field in the bottom of the third inning.
It was Deichmann’s 12th home run of the season and second of the series. The pitch he hit out was a breaking ball that came on the heels of a wild pitch that sailed near his head.
“It took a lot of courage to stand right in there and see that curveball as well as he did and hit it out of the park,” Mainieri said.
The Tigers added some insurance in the sixth, when Josh Smith scored pinch runner Jake Slaughter with a single up the middle of the field.
As it turned out, LSU needed that extra run.
The Rebels started chipping away at Walker in the seventh. Ole Miss cleanup man Ryan Olenek started a rally with a double off the base of the wall in right field, then wheeled around to score on Nick Fortes’ two-out single up the middle that cut LSU’s lead to 3-2.
Each hit came when Walker fell behind in the count, something he rarely did in the first six innings.
“I fell behind, and then I had to come back with the fastball,” Walker said. “They hit ground balls through the holes and made me pay for them.”
Walker was pulled in favor of Hess after allowing a Cole Zabowski single. With the tying run on second base and the go-ahead run at first, Hess struck out Bryan Seamster to end the inning.
“I was just trying to take some pressure off our defense and was going for the strikeout,” Hess said.
Hess got out of the same jam in the eighth, this one of his own making. He allowed a pair of two-out singles before getting Olenek to ground into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.
Newman worked a scoreless ninth to record his fifth save of the season, with a little help from Freeman.
“He’s got some ups for a little man,” Newman said.