The start of the Baton Rouge Regional has been anything but pretty for the LSU baseball team, but the Tigers have a chance to win it Sunday.
They’re in the driver’s seat because, for the second consecutive game, the top seed found a way to navigate challenging circumstances and find a way to win.
After winning its opener despite losing shortstop Alex Bregman and outfielder Raph Rhymes to injury, the Tigers overcame five errors and an early 5-1 deficit to defeat Sam Houston State 8-5 Saturday night in Alex Box Stadium.
LSU (54-9) advanced to the championship game at 7 p.m. Sunday. The Tigers will face the winner of a 2 p.m. elimination game between the Bearkats (38-21) and Louisiana-Lafayette, which eliminated Jackson State 15-1 Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers, who scored four runs in the eighth inning to overcome a lingering 5-4 deficit, need one more win to advance to a super regional at The Box. The survivor of Sunday’s elimination game would have to beat the Tigers on Sunday and again in a rematch Monday.
“You can’t panic in that situation,” Rhymes said of the early deficit that came after three first-inning errors. “You just have to keep playing. There’s a lot of game left. As long as we have this crowd behind us and another at bat, we have time left.”
The late rally in front of the largest crowd in LSU history (10,752) made a winner of Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year Aaron Nola (11-0), who pitched seven innings despite being victimized by a season-high five errors, the most committed by LSU in an NCAA tournament game in 17 years.
Nola allowed five unearned runs in the first but nothing after that as he lowered his ERA from 1.94 to 1.82. Chris Cotton pitched the final two innings for his school-record-tying 16th save.
“You can’t say enough about Aaron,” LSU first baseman Mason Katz said. “After that first inning, he put up six zeroes. He gave us a shot at coming back.”
The day started on a positive note for the Tigers as Bregman and Rhymes were both given medical clearance to play after being injured when they collided as Bregman caught a pop-up in the fourth inning of LSU’s 11-7 victory against Jackson State on Friday.
The winning rally began against Alan Scott (2-1) when Bregman singled with one out, his third hit. Katz walked, and Bregman scored the tying run when shortstop Carter Burgess misplayed Rhymes’ grounder on a hit-and-run.
“I just felt like we needed to try something,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “I just felt like if we get the runners started, Raph might find a hole. The base runners did a great job too.”
Christian Ibarra was hit by a pitch, and Katz scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch. After JaCoby Jones was intentionally walked, Ty Ross’ RBI single made it 7-5. Pinch hitter Alex Edward’s walk forced in the final run.
“They made a couple of mistakes, and we came back and hit them in the mouth and took advantage of it,” SHSU infielder Kevin Miller said. “We knew they weren’t going to lay down, and they were going to fight back.”
LSU scored a run in the top of the first, but should have had more. With one on and one out, Bregman launched a long fly to right-center field that bounced off a batting cage behind the fence and landed in play for a double. The umpires conferred and ruled that the ball never cleared the fence. Eventually the Tigers settled for Ibarra’s based-loaded walk rather than a two-run homer.
In the bottom half, Nola had what he called “the longest first inning I’ve ever experienced.” He needed 42 of the 111 pitches he would throw as Ibarra committed two errors, Bregman had one, and Nola yielded three hits and a walk.
“Aaron Nola really battled through that,” Bearkats coach David Pierce said. “He never lost his composure.”
LSU cut the deficit in half in the second. Ross led off with a single to center, Stevenson walked, and Sean McMullen singled to load the bases with none out. Jared Foster’s RBI grounder made it 5-2, and Bregman’s infield single made it 5-3.
In the Tigers’ third, Jones drew a one-out walk, Ross reached on Burgess’ error at short, and Stevenson beat out a bunt to load the bases. McMullen’s RBI-grounder made it 5-4. McMullen strained a hamstring on the play and was replaced as the designated hitter by Tyler Moore. After the game, Mainieri said McMullen was day-to-day.
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