Long before Saul Garza stepped into the batter's box in a tie game with Southern Miss, coach Paul Mainieri received pictures from the catcher. They came through in text messages, and when Mainieri unlocked his phone, he saw Garza holding a headless rattlesnake. Garza had blown the head off the venomous reptile.
"I figured if a kid had courage enough to fight rattlesnakes in his yard," Mainieri said, "he could probably play baseball at LSU."
The sophomore who looked fearless on Mainieri's phone as he gripped the snake in his hand walked toward the plate with the bases loaded in the eighth inning on Saturday night.
The Golden Eagles, shut out for so long by starter Cole Henry, had tied the game with a grand slam off Zack Hess. Deafening cheers came from the crowd at Alex Box Stadium.
"He had such a calmness about him," Mainieri said.
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With two strikes, Garza drove a single into the outfield. Two runs scored. Shortstop Josh Smith pointed at Garza from the dugout. When Garza scored from second base, chants of “L-S-U” filled the stadium.
The Tigers won 8-4, putting themselves one win from next weekend’s NCAA super regional, where they would face the winner of the Athens, Georgia, regional.
The Tigers defeat Southern Miss 8-4, Saturday, June 1, 2019, to advance to the Championship Round of the NCAA Baseball Baton Rouge Regional.
LSU will play the winner of Southern Miss and Arizona State at 8 p.m. Sunday. If the Tigers win, they will advance.
LSU led 4-0 entering the seventh inning. Henry had pitched like he did before elbow discomfort sidelined him for a month, setting up LSU for a shutout win. One of his fastballs touched 97 mph for the first time since he became a starter.
Junior Todd Peterson entered after Henry. He threw a scoreless sixth inning, but he issued a leadoff walk in the seventh. He hit the next two batters, loading the bases with no outs. As Southern Miss brought the tying run to the plate, Hess came in from the bullpen.
Hess had allowed 13 home runs this season, five more than any other LSU pitcher. The problem had plagued him since he moved out of the starting rotation. But Mainieri trusted Hess for the save-like situation.
"There’s nobody I have more confidence in on the mound at the end of the game, " Mainieri said, "than Zack Hess."
On a 1-2 pitch, Southern Miss second baseman Matthew Guidry hit a grand slam over the right field wall. Hess had thrown a low slider. Guidry scooped it off his shoe laces.
Hess retired the next three batters, but the Golden Eagles had tied the game entering the eighth inning.
Inside the dugout, Mainieri reminded the players they had two innings to win it. Hess hoped LSU would retake the lead.
"I didn’t want the people in Baton Rouge to burn down my house tonight," Hess said.
Daniel Cabrera led off the top of the eighth — LSU played as the visiting team — with a double. Cade Beloso, who had driven in two runs, was hit by a pitch. Then Zach Watson walked to load the bases.
Garza moved out of the on-deck circle. In late April, Garza’s batting average rested at .188. He struck out often. But Garza had caught fire the past month, raising his average to .300 for the first time since early March.
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Garza, batting seventh to balance LSU’s lineup, broke the tie. Beloso crossed home plate and yelled, his entire body vibrating. The crowd of 11,015 roared into the night. LSU had retaken the lead.
About a month and a half ago, Mainieri decided Henry would pitch the pivotal Saturday game of a regional. Though Henry missed the final month of the regular season with soreness in his elbow and gave up five runs his last start, Mainieri stuck with the freshman.
Henry struggled to find his curveball, but he pitched five shutout innings and allowed two hits. As he watched his final out fall into Smith's glove, Henry nodded.
"He goes out there after a month of not pitching in games," Hess said, "and pitches like the best guy in the SEC."
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Hess walked back out for the ninth with a four-run lead. The NCAA tournament prohibited walk-out songs, but Alex Box snuck in Hess’ “Shout at the Devil” by Mötley Crüe.
When Hess struck out Southern Miss' final batter, he lightly pumped his fist, a subdued celebration from an often energetic pitcher. He had given up the homer after Peterson struggled, but LSU won anyway.
Antoine Duplantis remained tied with Eddy Furniss for LSU's all-time hits record.
The Tigers moved one game closer to the goals they set earlier this year, before injuries and inconsistency, back when LSU was the No. 1 team in the country.
"This team has never wavered in its expectations," Hess said. "We’re looking like the team everybody thought we would be at the start of the season."