The night before LSU finished its series with Florida, coach Paul Mainieri told his players they had to win on Saturday afternoon if they wanted to contend for a Southeastern Conference championship.
Having split the first two games, Mainieri told his team the outcome was “pivotal” for LSU’s season.
“Look how the kids responded today,” Mainieri said. “Came out and played terrific right from the get-go.”
LSU beat Florida 11-2 at Alex Box Stadium to win its fourth conference series. A lineup filled with backups quickly built a lead and Eric Walker earned a quality start.
Cole Henry recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts as LSU evened its series against Florida.
LSU (26-15, 11-7 SEC) forced a pitching change before No. 25 Florida (26-16, 7-11) recorded an out in the second inning.
“That was a game we needed today, for sure,” said pitcher Zack Hess, who made his first appearance in more than a week. “We're right in the mix. We can still accomplish everything we want to accomplish.”
Playing without three starters — Zach Watson, Chris Reid and Brock Mathis — the No. 15 Tigers led by nine runs after three innings. Shortstop Josh Smith had three extra-base hits, and right fielder Antoine Duplantis drove in four runs.
Two days earlier, Walker said the Tigers felt “embarrassed” after they lost 16-9 in the first game of the series. They evened the series the next day in a blow-out win.
“I tried to keep the momentum going today,” Walker said.
The NCAA Division I Council voted against a proposal that would have allowed LSU baseball and softball the choice of paying a third assistant coach. Paul Mainieri wanted the new rule to pass.
One week after his worst start of the season, Walker struck out five batters and did not allow a walk. He gave up a two-run home run, but he mostly cruised through Florida’s lineup.
While LSU built its lead, Walker twice threw in the bullpen to stay loose between pitches.
“Sometimes the breaks get a little long,” Walker said, “but I'm not going to complain when we have a nine-run lead.”
Walker’s start ended after 5⅔ innings. Mainieri said he could have pitched longer, but LSU wanted to get Hess in the game.
LSU began its series with Florida with a 16-9 loss on Thursday at Alex Box Stadium.
An injured groin had forced Hess out of his last start in the first inning. Mainieri worried about the possibility of Hess re-injuring his groin, setting him back as LSU finished the regular season, but he took the chance.
Hess went 2⅓ scoreless innings and struck out three batters.
Not long ago, the Tigers struggled while they managed their injuries. They had lost four straight games. Mainieri looked disappointed on Thursday night. But with two blowout wins over Florida, they kept themselves in the thick of the quest for a conference title.
“Hopefully this weekend was the start of something good," Mainieri said.
When the game ended, Mainieri kneeled in the turf outside LSU’s dugout and motioned for his granddaughter. The girl waddled into his outstretched arms. They rolled onto the ground, and Mainieri lifted her over his chest as the soaked in the afternoon sun.