Cole Freeman crouched down, looking at the dirt beneath his cleats as Mississippi State first baseman Nathaniel Lowe stepped on home plate, slapping hands with the three teammates his mammoth, first-inning grand slam had just driven in.
An announced crowd of more than 10,000 hummed after a pageantry-filled pregame honored Eddy Furniss, one of the program’s most prodigious players, as the school retired his No. 36. Yet Freeman was glum, looking at the dirt beneath his cleats after a blunder that set an inauspicious tone in LSU’s sloppy, testy series-opening 12-8 loss Friday night at Alex Box Stadium.
Moments earlier, the inning rested in Freeman’s glove. With two on and one out, Brent Rooker hit a textbook 6-4-3 double play ball to Kramer Robertson, who flipped the ball to Freeman covering second base.
Freeman didn’t catch it. LSU starter Jared Poché’s next pitch found the Diamond Deck in right field, and LSU was in a 4-0 hole before its potent bats even took a swing.
“I tried to go too fast with it. I looked up to see where I was. Didn’t get it done,” Freeman said. “I think that might have been the first time I’ve ever done that. You just have to stay focused.”
By the box score’s tally, LSU made three errors, but a fourth miscue to begin the eighth inning signaled a three-run Bulldogs rally that augmented a lead that had been trimmed to one.
Caleb Gilbert began the inning with a three-pitch strikeout of No. 9 hitter Hunter Stovall. The third strike eluded Mike Papierski, who could not find the passed ball and allowed Stovall to reach first.
Stovall scored on Brent Rooker’s two-strike single to center, making the score 10-8 before Lowe demolished Gilbert’s 1-2 offering into the left-field corner, a double that drove in two more and quieted a gold-clad crowd that had been riled by Antoine Duplantis’ seventh-inning surge.
Facing sidearmer Ryan Rigby, Duplantis hit his first collegiate home run — a grand slam — to right field, cutting his team’s deficit to 9-8 and closing the book on Bulldogs starter Dakota Hudson.
Duplantis, who hadn’t driven in more than two runs in a game, drove in five Friday.
“I still don’t think it happened. It’s kind of surreal,” said Duplantis, still beaming at his milestone.
Quickly, though, he turned to the entire game.
“Usually eight runs wins a Friday night game,” Duplantis said. “I thought we hit the ball pretty well. We could have got a couple more, but eight runs is enough. We just have to play better defense all around.”
Hudson entered his start with a season high of eight hits allowed. LSU amassed eight through 2.2 innings, the last a Chris Reid single through the right side to score Bryce Jordan and tie it.
Reid collected singles in his first two at-bats. Every Tigers starter got a hit off Hudson, who allowed a season-high seven earned runs and exited in favor of Rigby just before Duplantis’ slam.
Poché countered Hudson’s subpar start with one of his own, issuing a career-high seven runs across six innings, though all three errors were committed while he pitched.
“We didn’t pitch particularly great. Our pitching was about the same as our defense in terms of effectiveness tonight,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “The difference in the ballgame was simply the defense.”
Tension — most directed at home plate umpire Mike Morris — boiled throughout the nearly four-hour game, coming to a crescendo in the eighth inning when Rigby plunked Bryce Jordan and pinch-hitter Jordan Romero in consecutive at-bats.
Bryce Jordan was hit twice in the at-bat, but Morris ruled he did not attempt to evade the ball and kept him at home plate the first time. Mainieri vehemently argued that call to no avail.
It was a familiar scenario. With the score tied at 4 in the fourth, Beau Jordan laced a two-out single to center, which Jake Mangum corralled and fired in as Greg Deichmann rounded third.
The throw beat Deichmann home. On replay, Deichmann appeared to slide around Elih Marrero’s tag for the go-ahead run, but Morris called him out.
Deichmann popped up to protest the call incredulously. Racing from the dugout, Mainieri joined his player, tugging at his hat and leaping in dismay at Morris’ ruling, which stood, kept the score tied and ended the inning.
“I thought it was pretty obvious he was safe, but the umpires make the calls the best they can,” Mainieri said. “He thought the runner was out and made the call. Pretty big momentum shift for us. We had a chance to come back and take the lead, and it was still tied. That’s the way it goes; you have to overcome those things, and we just weren’t able to tonight.”
Rigby’s erratic streak loaded the bases and brought Freeman to the plate as the tying run in the eighth. He struck out against reliever Reid Humphreys, bringing about a slow walk back to the dugout, again staring at the dirt.
“This loss,” Freeman said, “is 110 percent on me.”