Two weeks ago, coach Paul Mainieri called fifth-year LSU pitcher Matthew Beck into his office.
Beck had tried to complete his first bullpen session since tightness appeared in his elbow Feb. 24 against UL. He threw 11 pitches. On the 12th, he felt pain again from his damaged ulnar collateral ligament.
With the setback, the outlook on Beck’s season didn’t look promising. Here was a player who lost his senior year because of the coronavirus pandemic, returned as a graduate student and received the coveted No. 8 uniform for his leadership — only to appear in three games before his injury.
“When was the last time you hit?” Mainieri said.
“Uh, senior year of high school,” Beck said. “So, about five years ago.”
“We’re going to get you in a game before the season ends,” Mainieri said.
As Cade Doughty sprinted into foul territory, he looked over his left shoulder to track a pop-up.
The opportunity arrived during LSU’s 10-2 win Monday evening against Southern.
By the seventh inning, Mainieri had already replaced nearly every player in the lineup with such a comfortable lead. He knew the only starter left was junior Gavin Dugas, who would bat third in the bottom of the eighth. Mainieri didn’t want Dugas to get hurt with LSU (27-17) about to play Auburn in a crucial weekend series. He turned to Beck.
“How would you feel about an at-bat?” Mainieri said.
Beck leaped from his chair where he had been charting pitches, one of the responsibilities he has often handled since his injury. Beck looked for batting gloves, a bat and a helmet that would fit his head.
With two outs, Beck stepped into the batter’s box, invoking memories of the time former LSU pitcher Todd Peterson crushed a double during the 2018 SEC Tournament.
Beck smacked the first pitch foul. The next one dropped in for a strike. Then Southern’s pitcher tried to sneak a fastball past Beck, and he crushed it 103.2 mph into right field, the third-hardest hit ball by an LSU player during the game.
LSU’s players burst from the dugout inside Alex Box Stadium. First base coach Hunter Kiel hugged Beck. And when Beck soon jogged off the field after the third out of the inning, he tipped his helmet to a standing ovation from the crowd.
LSU dropped its series to No. 1 Arkansas this weekend and fell to 7-14 in the Southeastern Conference.
“That’s the dream,” Beck said. “That was the absolute dream right there.”
As for the game itself, LSU pulled ahead slowly at first. It led 4-0 entering the fifth inning. Still within reach, Southern (13-26) put two runners on base. Then sophomore infielder O’Neill Burgos crushed a two-out double into the left field gap. Two runs scored.
After freshman Ty Floyd entered and recorded the third out, Tre’ Morgan hit a leadoff single. He stole second, then Dylan Crews smashed a double off the right-center field wall. Morgan waited near the second base bag until the ball dropped, delaying his jump.
Third base coach Nolan Cain signaled for Morgan to stop at third as Southern relayed the ball to the edge of the infield. Morgan either didn’t see the instruction or ignored it. He sprinted around the bag and toward home plate. Cain jumped out of the way. Morgan scored.
Southern helped LSU as sophomore Cade Doughty reached on a throwing error and junior Giovanni DiGiacomo was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. One run scored on freshman Jordan Thompson’s sacrifice fly. Two more crossed on junior Cade Beloso’s single up the middle. LSU led 8-2 by the end of the inning.
Here, with so much at stake, was a chance for LSU’s bullpen to protect a lead. The Tigers had pulled ahead of Arkansas by four runs in the sec…
With the win, LSU remained undefeated in midweek games this season. The Tigers have not lost to another in-state team. They outscored Southern 26-3 during the cross-town schools’ two games this year. LSU now has 11 games left in the regular season as it makes its postseason push.
“We still have hope,” Mainieri said. “We believe in ourselves. We’re going to go out there and compete as hard as we can every game. Let’s see what happens over the next three weeks.”
The lead comfortably in hand, LSU played out the final innings with backups at every position, allowing Beck to eventually create the most heart-warming moment of a disappointing season.
LSU continues to hope Beck can pitch again. He recently underwent a last-ditch procedure on his elbow, and he threw from about 90 feet Monday afternoon. Realistically, his pinch-hit single might've been the final appearance of his LSU career. If it was?
“I can’t help but be happy,” Beck said. “I have absolutely no regrets.”