TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Before LSU boarded the bus to Alabama, coach Paul Mainieri said he was hopeful his ace pitcher would be able to put a struggling team on his back to set the tone for their three-game series.
And that’s exactly what he got from Alex Lange. The junior right-hander struck out 10 in 7.1 sterling innings, leading the Tigers in an 8-2 win in the series opener.
“Obviously, he was the story of the game,” Mainieri said.
Lange was razor-sharp from the outset. A week after walking a season-high eight batters against Kentucky, he walked just one Thursday, pounding the strike zone with excellent command of his fastball and breaking ball.
“That was big,” Lange said. “When we were missing, we were missing down.”
Lange threw 73 of his 112 pitches for strikes, which Mainieri said was a “concerted effort” after LSU’s pitching staff issued 39 free passes in the four games leading up to Thursday’s win.
Pitching coach Alan Dunn “had a pretty intense meeting with the pitchers (Wednesday) during practice. ... He wanted them to be more aggressive, and I think Lange took it to heart,” Mainieri said.
The only blemish on his final line came courtesy of Alabama catcher Alex Webb, who ambushed the first pitch he saw from Lange in the second inning and deposited it over the fence in right-center for a two-run home run.
Every other time Lange needed to make a big pitch, he seemed to find it.
Webb led off the Alabama fifth with a double to left field — again on the first pitch — and he took third base on a fly ball to right field. But Lange induced a harmless fly ball to left field before striking out leadoff hitter Chandler Avant to end the threat.
He let out a yell as he walked off the field, having escaped the jam.
Two innings later, Alabama collected back-to-back singles to lead off the seventh inning. Then, with two outs, Lange walked pinch hitter Tanner DeVinny to load the bases, again for Avant.
As Avant’s lazy fly ball settled into Greg Deichmann’s glove in right field, Lange pumped his fist.
“I fist-pumped because I was pretty happy to get out of there,” Lange said. “I hung the breaking ball just a little bit. But he just missed it.”
Lange faced two batters in the eighth inning before giving way to redshirt freshman left-hander Nick Bush. Mainieri only wanted Bush to face two batters — Alabama’s best two power hitters — and Bush retired both without incident to get out of the inning.
It was Lange’s third game this season with double-digit strikeouts, and his fifth start that took him into the seventh inning or later.
It hasn’t always been the case this season, but the LSU offense had Lange’s back Thursday. The Tigers got to Alabama left-hander Dylan Duarte (2-5) in the first inning, bringing three runs home before Lange even took the mound.
Beau Jordan, batting in the leadoff spot for the first time this season, led the game off with an infield single. It was the first of four hits in the inning, and it was followed by run scoring singles by Nick Coomes and Kramer Robertson.
“It’s a big game-changer when you’re playing with an early lead,” Lange said.
LSU added single runs in the third and fourth innings, and chased Duarte before he could get an out in the fourth.
Senior second baseman Cole Freeman led LSU with a 3-5 day at the plate. It was his first three-hit game since March 3 against TCU.
“I’ve really been feeling good at the plate in the last week,” Freeman said. “Me and (hitting coach Micah Gibbs) looked at a little footage and kind of figured some things out that I kind of got away from stuff that I was doing at the beginning of the season.”
Hunter Newman looked primed to close out a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning, but LSU scored three runs in the top of the ninth, two of which came on a bases-loaded double by Antoine Duplantis with two outs.
“The score is not indicative of how tough a win this was,” Mainieri said. “Those three runs in the top of the ninth inning made the game seem more one-sided than it really was.”
That allowed Mainieri to turn to freshman Matthew Beck, who logged a perfect ninth to close the game out.
“It was nice that we got that little cushion and didn’t have to use Newman or (Zack) Hess in the game today,” Mainieri said.
LSU will send Jared Poché to the mound for the second game at 6 p.m. Friday.