The LSU baseball team rocked Alex Box Stadium with come-from-behind, late-inning victories against Georgia in the first two games of a three-game Southeastern Conference series.
The finale Sunday looked like it might provide the best finish yet.
LSU had the bases loaded with two outs in the ninth and cleanup hitter Raph Rhymes at the plate. A crowd of 6,673 stood and cheered.
“I was envisioning Raph just hammering something down the line or in the gap,” said LSU right fielder Mason Katz, who drew a walk in front of Rhymes and represented the winning run at first base. “I was going to run so fast my shoes were probably going to come off.”
Rhymes entered the at-bat hitting a nation’s-best .503 and had struck out only seven times all season. But he chased the last pitch of the weekend he saw, a full-count slider by Earl Daniels, to complete Georgia’s 5-3 victory and keep LSU from scoring the sweep.
A win would have moved the Tigers (35-10, 14-7) into sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference standings. LSU instead shares the top spot with South Carolina (33-11, 14-7) and Kentucky (26-9, 14-7), which lost Saturday and Sunday at Vanderbilt after winning the series opener.
It was the first time since opening SEC play against Mississippi State that LSU failed to sweep a series at home.
“I think Rhymes wanted a hit so bad, he went after that pitch,” Georgia coach David Perno said. “He didn’t want to take a walk there.”
Given the time he spent in the headlines this week, Rhymes could have written a fitting end to a weekend marked by dramatic LSU comebacks.
On Friday night, Austin Nola hit a two-run homer in the eighth for a 6-5 win. On Saturday night, Katz’s grand slam in the eighth led LSU back from a 4-2 deficit and on its way to an 8-4 victory.
Rhymes got his shot Sunday after Arby Fields and Katz drew back-to-back two-out walks as Daniels, looking for his first save, struggled to throw his slider for a strike.
“When we put ourselves in a position to win, we always think the guy’s going to come through,” Katz said. “It was just one of those situations where it didn’t happen this time. It’s tough to do what we did the last two night three games in a row.”
Rhymes got his average all the way up to .510 with a pair of early singles, but he ended the day at .500 after reaching on an error in the fifth, grounding into an inning-ending double play in the seventh and, finally, going down on strikes for just the eighth time in 156 at-bats.
The junior from Monroe did not make himself available to the media after the game.
“He’s just come through so many times and has been the greatest player for us,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Nobody in the world should blame him for this loss.
“If we had another time with the exact same situation, he’d be the exact guy we want up there.”
LSU had a shot at the sweep because its bullpen, for the third time in as many days, helped keep the Tigers within striking distance until the end.
Freshman starter Aaron Nola got off to a good start, retiring eight straight batters at one point and going three-plus innings without facing a two-ball count. But the Bulldogs figured him out the second time through the order, scoring four runs on six hits in the fourth inning.
Brent Bonvillain replaced Nola with two outs in the fifth and threw 1.1 innings of shutout ball. Kurt McCune gave up the only run by the LSU bullpen in 11 innings this weekend when Justin Bryan clubbed his second homer of the game in the eighth. Nick Rumbelow pitched the final 1.1 innings, leaving a pair of runners stranded in the eighth and retiring the side in the ninth.
“Three of their five runs came on two swings of the bat, so the pitching was there,” Mainieri said. “We just couldn’t muster enough offense today.”
Ty Ross pulled the Tigers back within 4-3 with a homer to left on Georgia starter Luke Crumley’s first pitch of the fourth inning.
Katz scored the other two LSU runs, the first for a 1-0 lead in the first on a wild pitch and the second to make it 2-0 in the third after nearly getting caught in a rundown between home and third and forcing catcher Brett DeLoach into an errant throw.
But the Tigers, despite their daylong offensive struggles, were right there at the end with the bases loaded and the nation’s leading hitter at the plate.
“You always try to win two games every SEC weekend — that’s the goal,” Katz said. “It’s tough to look at the positives right now, because we’re all pretty upset.
“But in the long run you’ll look and see we took two in another SEC weekend.”
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