AUBURN, Ala. — Parker Bugg heard a final commendation from a traveling LSU fan near the first-base line and made his way to the dugout, stopped only by the day’s starting pitcher, John Valek III, for an embrace.
Just last week, Bugg, the lanky LSU reliever with a wipeout slider who had slumped to a 6.75 ERA coming into Sunday’s 10-5 win at Auburn, surmised he had solved his issues.
“Trying to be a little too fine, going too slow,” Bugg explained. “I kind of sped it up a little bit more, and it’s kind of helped my rhythm. Everything’s kind of starting to sync up.”
A two-inning, three-strikeout outing Tuesday against Tulane sparked hope. Head coach Paul Mainieri met with his pitching coach, Alan Dunn.
“That looked like the Parker Bugg of old,” they said. “Maybe that was the outing he needed to turn himself around.”
If that wasn’t, Sunday’s surely was.
Moments after classmate Alden Cartwright injured his elbow on his fourth pitch in relief of Valek, Bugg’s moment manifested with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning while LSU clung to a 6-4 lead.
Student manager Joe McCarthy informed Bugg, sequestered in an outfield bullpen that obstructs a view of the action, that he would enter sooner than he thought. Bugg said he was warm, but he knew nothing of the situation he inherited.
Cartwright had a 2-2 count on Cody Nulph when he exited. Bugg lost him on a walk, shrinking LSU’s lead to 6-5. A fielder’s choice cut down a runner at home, bringing pinch hitter Jackson Burgreen up with two outs.
Bugg struck him out on three pitches, the last a swooping slider that Burgreen waved through as the 6-foot-7 righty lumbered off the mound. He moved into an energized LSU dugout that seems to have found its power spark after a two-game feast against the depleted Auburn staff.
Bugg finished the game, holding an Auburn club that hits better than .300 scoreless through the final 3.2 innings while the Tigers piled on insurance runs in the seventh and eighth.
“That,” Bugg said with a wide grin, “was more along the lines of what I’m familiar with. Those fastball strikes, I think that was my biggest issue. I think I have a better rhythm and sync; it’s starting to all kind of time up and everything.”
Just after Bugg’s dismissal of Burgreen, LSU’s Jordan Romero — hitting cleanup for the second straight game — demolished a three-run homer over Plainsman Park’s left field “green monster” in the seventh, one of two LSU long balls that cleared the enormous wall Sunday.
It was Romero’s second home run of a series that began with him on the bench and ended with questions about whether he had cemented a role as an everyday player. Inserted in the fourth inning of the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Romero hit two home runs and drove in seven of LSU’s 23 total runs.
“Quite frankly, I think I hit better when I’m catching,” said Romero, who caught every inning but those first four. “You’re locked into the game; you can’t slip up on anything. I’m just really locked in. … You should be able to be locked in every day when you get a chance to play.”
Added Mainieri: “In order to win series in the SEC, particularly on the road, some players need to do extraordinary things. And we had a few guys do that.”
Moved from his customary cleanup spot in favor of Romero, Beau Jordan had the other home run over the massive left-field wall, driving in Antoine Duplantis with his first swing of the second inning off Auburn starter Andrew Mitchell.
Mitchell, a New Orleans native and Jesuit graduate who spent a redshirt season at LSU in 2014 before transferring to Delgado Community College, made a surprise start after throwing 101 pitches in a six-inning start Tuesday against Alabama. His 61-pitch afternoon ended after Cole Freeman’s RBI single in a three-run fifth inning.
Valek retired 14 of the 15 hitters he faced from the second through the fifth inning before running afoul in the sixth and turning the game over to Bugg.
“This was a big day for us,” Valek said. “If we would have lost this game, we would have fallen down to the bottom of the rankings, but to win this game and be 4-5 in conference ... no one is really blowing anyone away in the conference. That just drives us right back up to the top. Big, big swing day for us.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter, @Chandler_Rome.