HOOVER, Ala. — Bad breaks. Rusty pitchers. Post-midnight baseball. And pressure. Don’t forget the pressure to avoid being winless in the Southeastern Conference tournament for the first time under this format, which would have surely been a kiss goodbye to LSU’s hopes of hosting an NCAA regional next week.
The LSU Tigers overcame all of that, all those factors that were much more formidable than the 28-27 South Carolina team they were playing. The result was a sweaty-palmed but ultimately reaffirming 8-6 victory over the Gamecocks that pivots LSU into the double-elimination portion of the SEC tournament, but really does so much more for them.
Let’s rattle off a few of the positives for the Tigers, shall we?
• Cole Henry. The freshman pitcher. The phenom. The next great. Henry may be all that. But he had to shake off a month’s worth of inactivity because of pain in his elbow as he strode to the mound Tuesday night.
The results were mixed. Henry was tagged for five runs (four earned) and five hits in just 1.2 innings of work. But there was more upside than down. He felt good, there was a lot of movement on his pitches and he was victimized by some very bad luck. One could easily argue that if a ground ball by South Carolina’s Brady Allen had not somehow gotten snared in the webbing of second baseman Brandt Broussard’s glove, Henry might have escaped the second inning with the 1-0 lead from Josh Smith’s first-inning home run still intact.
“I knew there was nothing wrong” with his arm, Henry said. “I knew I could go let loose again. I felt like myself again.”
So much so that if LSU is still around come Sunday, LSU coach Paul Mainieri wasn’t ruling out the prospect of letting Henry pitch a little again on four days rest. How’s that for a positive?
Cole Henry's father, Jeff, began teaching him how to pitch when he was 9 years old.
• Devin Fontenot. The Tigers’ former closer scuffled through several appearances down the stretch run of the season. His last two were truncated starts of two innings each against UNO and Auburn.
But after Matthew Beck came in to relieve Henry and looked erratic in his 11-pitch, one-out stint, Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn turned to Fontenot to calm the waters after South Carolina’s weird and wonderful five-run uprising in the second.
Fontenot threw 4 1/3 innings of one-hit scoreless relief before giving way to Todd Peterson for the final 2 2/3. It was just what Fontenot needed and definitely what the Tigers needed in those crucial middle frames.
“I didn’t want to get on that bus to head home tomorrow morning, I can tell you that,” Mainieri said. “We just needed to stop them. That’s why Fontenot was the key to the game. Once we showed we could hold them down it gave our hitters confidence.”
• Hitting. South Carolina’s also injury-ravaged pitching staff hardly had anything left to offer in the way of resistance, with an SEC regular-season earned run average of nearly 7. But LSU piled up 13 hits, with every starter except Chris Reid getting a hit or scoring a run or both. Once the Tigers shook off that crazy South Carolina second inning by responding with a gritty pair of runs in the bottom half, you figured LSU would eventually be OK.
The Tigers certainly thought so.
“Down 5-1 it never crossed any of our minds that we would lose,” said Smith, who went 2-for-4 and hit the ball hard every time. “We just kept grinding.”
• NCAA hopes. It would probably take winning the SEC tournament to make LSU a certain regional host, but it is almost as certain that a loss would have kept the Tigers (now 35-22) on the road.
Still, Mainieri, a veteran coach of many an NCAA selection process, wasn’t letting the joy of one win bring his guard down.
“I’ve been around too many years,” Mainieri said. “The selection committee … it’s not a transparent process. And it’s not just what you do but what others do, too. It’s hard to predict.
“All we can do is try to win some games this week and make their job easier.”
The next chance to win comes late Wednesday night (scheduled start time 8 p.m., but don’t count on it) against No. 4-seeded Mississippi State in a tradition-laden second-round showdown. Between them, the Tigers and Bulldogs have combined to win 19 SEC tournament titles (LSU with a record 12, State with seven).
LSU won two of three in Starkville earlier this season, arguably the Tigers’ most impressive regular-season achievement considering the Bulldogs’ lofty No. 3 national ranking. After having to stitch together nine innings of pitching Tuesday night with whatever arms necessary, the Tigers come back Wednesday with improving Eric Walker taking the hill. Walker pitched his best game of this season in an 11-2 victory at State back on March 30, throwing seven strong innings of shutout ball. And it’s easy to remember his last outing here, beating Arkansas 4-2 in the 2017 tournament final with 7.2 innings of one-run dominance.
Can the Tigers’ topple the mighty Bulldogs once again? After what they overcame to win Tuesday, they probably believe anything is possible.