HOOVER, Ala. — Over the course of roughly nine innings Friday, Alabama’s Mike Oczypok cut the figure of anything but a walk-on freshman on the mound.
Stymieing LSU, the Pennsylvania native came a lone out away from notching a complete-game victory against the Tigers and scoring a measure of vengeance after the No. 2 seed in the SEC baseball tournament touched him up for three decisive runs in a 16-inning victory six weeks ago in Tuscaloosa.
The final out stood too tall an impediment, though, at packed Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
LSU first baseman Tyler Moore cracked a two-out double into the left-field gap to score pinch runner Jared Foster to tie it and chase Oczypok before Ty Ross smacked a go-ahead single to bring in Moore off reliever Jay Shaw for a 3-2 victory over the seventh-seeded Crimson Tide, staving off elimination and delivering the Tigers their 50th victory. It also earned LSU a rematch with Arkansas at noon Saturday.
“What a way to win our 50th game of the year,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Indeed, considering the Crimson Tide (35-25) handcuffed the Tigers (50-9) behind Oczypok, whose hard sinker and sneaky velocity had held Mainieri’s squad to one run while it stranded six runners.
A rally looked doomed after Mason Katz singled to open the inning only to see Raph Rhymes ground into LSU’s fourth double play. Yet Christian Ibarra answered with a single to left field, followed by Foster coming in to pinch-run. After running the count full, Oczypok hung a breaking ball that the first baseman mashed to the wall.
“Right there, I’m just looking for something to hit hard,” Moore said. “I was just going to swing hard and hope something goes in the gap.”
Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard lifted his starter, who allowed three runs on 10 hits and struck out five, in favor of right-hander Jay Shaw to face catcher Ty Ross. Three pitches later, Ross drove his own single to left field to bring in Moore.
“You’re going up with the same mindset,” Ross said. “You’re trying to put the team on your back and just have a clutch, quality at-bat. (Ibarra) was able to do that, and I was able to feed off of that.”
Until a finish equal parts harrowing and thrilling, the Tigers appeared set to squander the first quality outing by starter Ryan Eades in more than a month and a week. He entered with a 5.79 ERA in his past five starts.
“Our goal when you go out there is to pitch the whole game, and whenever they take the ball from us, they take the ball from us,” Eades said. That’s what I just tried to do today — keep the team in the game.”
The Tigers staked Eades, who went seven innings and allowed two runs on four hits, to a 1-0 lead in the third inning after Sean McMullen’s double to the left-field gap scored Moore, who had singled and advanced on a bunt.
Yet they squandered a chance to add support in the fourth with the bases loaded. Mark Laird beat out an infield single up the first-base line in the first stirring of an offensive breakthrough for LSU in this tournament after it was silenced by Bama’s Charley Sullivan and Arkansas’ Ryne Stanek. Two batters later, Rhymes lifted a fly ball to right field that was bobbled and dropped by Ben Moore, putting runners at the corners. Oczypok loaded the bases when he plunked Ibarra on a 3-1 count.
It all went for naught, though. On the second pitch he saw, Moore chopped a grounder to first basemen Austen Smith to end the inning, stranding three runners.
“It’s been spoken about enough with the combination of all the factors: quality pitching, big ballpark, the change in the bats, the wind was blowing in,” Mainieri said. “It’s hard to get extra-base hits to start with, and it’s hard to string a lot of base hits together.”
Eades was on treacherous ground in the fifth after walking Ben Moore to lead off the inning. On his first offering to Mike White, the Bama shortstop roped a line drive into left field, one that Andrew Stevenson couldn’t snare after he laid out, for a triple to score Moore. Catcher Brett Booth put the Tide ahead 2-1 with an opposite-field single to right.
It prompted a visit from LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn.
“It was like, ‘You gave up two; we don’t give up three,’ ” Eades said of the meeting on the mound. “I just minimized the damage and tried to get out of the inning.”
Striking out Andrew Miller and Chance Vincent sufficed, but Eades didn’t return in the eighth. He ceded the hill to Nate Fury after throwing an efficient 72 pitches and striking out four.
“Ryan’s command was much better today,” Mainieri said. “Quite frankly, I thought they hit several balls really hard right at people and we made some very good plays.”
Yet Oczypok kept cruising. He worked around a two-out single from Stevenson in the fifth and sat down Alex Bregman, Katz and Rhymes in order in the sixth, part of a stretch where he retired nine consecutive batters.
“He was mixing his pitches well and throwing a lot of two-seam fastballs and getting a lot of ground ball outs,” Ross said. “He just had great game and was pitching to his strengths.”
Until the final out.
“We finally got to him at the end,” Moore said. “That’s what matters.”