Tigers clinch first outright title since 2003 season
COLUMBIA, S.C. — LSU came here looking to win at least a share of the Southeastern Conference overall championship and strengthen its case for one of the coveted eight national seeds in the upcoming NCAA baseball tournament.
After arriving, the Tigers encountered a rainout-induced doubleheader, lost a catcher to injury for the second time in a week and went toe-to-toe for three games in 26 hours against two-time defending national champion South Carolina in front of sellout crowds the size and intensity of which are rarely seen outside of Alex Box Stadium.
When first baseman Mason Katz squeezed a routine foul pop-up into his glove to complete an anything-but-routine 3-2, 10-inning victory Saturday afternoon in Columbia Stadium, LSU had a series victory and at least a share of its record 15th SEC championship. When Florida lost at Auburn, then Kentucky lost at Mississippi State a short time later, the Tigers (42-14, 19-11) has their first outright league title since 2003.
“This is a memorable day, really — certainly in a coaching career, but those kids will never forget this day,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “To come here, to the two-time defending national champion, to win the series, to (win) the SEC championship, and all the other implications that it may have. They’ll never forget that day — what it took for our guys to pull this off was something extraordinary and they gave it.”
After the Gamecocks (39-15, 18-11), who wound up as Eastern Division champions, tied the score at 1 in the bottom of the third, LSU and Carolina battled through six tense, scoreless innings before taking the regular season into overtime.
Jordy Snikeris, unable to catch for the second consecutive game because of bruised index finger on his throwing hand, walked to lead off the 10th against Evan Beal (3-4), the third of six pitchers the Gamecocks used with closer Matt Price unavailable after throwing three innings in Carolina’s 5-4 victory Friday night.
Tyler Hanover bunted Snikeris to second before JaCoby Jones lined out to second. Beal pitched around Austin Nola, falling behind 3-0 before throwing ball four intentionally.
Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner brought in left-hander Tyler Webb to force switch hitter Arby Fields to bat right-handed. Mainieri summoned seldom-used Jackson Slaid, who was hitless in his eight at-bats in SEC play this season, to pinch hit. Slaid patiently looked at three consecutive balls before taking strike one. Slaid swung and missed to fill the count then sent a soft liner into right field to send home Snikeris home with the tie-breaking run.
“(Mainieri) said I could swing 3-and-0, but it wasn’t really a pitch I wanted. And then I was right on that 3-1 pitch, and I just missed it,” Slaid said. “On 3-2, (Webb) threw it again, and I stayed inside of it and drove it into right field.”
Jared Foster pinch ran for Slaid, and Katz followed with a single up the middle, bringing home Nola with an insurance run that paid dividends in the bottom half.
“With a guy on third, I was just trying to pick up another,” Katz said. “We knew that team never gives up.
“I knew the pitcher was a little frustrated and would throw something over the middle and I’d be able to hit something up the middle.”
Mainieri brought in Nick Goody, who was 9-for-9 in save opportunities before failing in a disheartening 5-4 loss to Vanderbilt six days earlier, to start the ninth.
Leadoff hitter Evan Marzilli hit a soft liner to left-center that appeared playable, but Foster misjudged the ball coming off the bat and it fell in for a double.
“That pitch is over, and you go to the next one,” Goody said.
Adam Matthews singled Marzilli to third, leaving the potential tying runs on base as Christian Walker, who hit a game-turning three-run homer Friday night, stepped into the batter’s box representing the potential winning run.
Goody fell behind 1-0 before inducing a sacrifice fly to center, making it 3-2. Goody then got LB Dantzler to fly to right before Grayson Greiner lofted a 1-0 pitch high into the sunny sky in foul territory between home and first in front of the home dugout. Goody and catcher Tyler Moore both followed the ball until Katz called them off.
“The whole time I was yelling, ‘Tyler you better catch that,’” Goody said, “and then out of nowhere came Mason, whose defense was incredible all weekend … I wouldn’t rather have anybody catch it than Mason.
“That’s just a moment that I’m going to treasure forever.”
The victory went to Chris Cotton (6-0), who pitched three scoreless innings before giving way to Goody. Cotton struck out four, including the side in the ninth, when he allowed his only baserunner as he walked Chase Vergason with two out.
“I was just able to get ahead and keep them off balance, and that’s what’s key for me,” Cotton said. “My changeup was working today, and I was able to mix that in.”
The anxiety built for both teams as LSU threatened to break the 1-1 tie in both the seventh and eighth, but couldn’t.
Katz led off the seventh with a single and Raph Rhymes nearly followed suit, but Vergason made a diving catch of his line dive that was headed toward right field.
Moore’s groundout moved Katz to second before Alex Edward was hit by a pitch. Tanner brought in left-hander Nolan Belcher to face left-handed designated hitter Grant Dozar, but Mainieri pinch hit with the right-handed Snikeris, who worked the count to 2-1 then grounded into a forceout at third.
Hanover led off the eighth with a double. Jones squared around to bunt but took two strikes before drawing a walk. That brought on Beal, who got Nola to fly to medium right. Hanover tagged and reached third easily as Matthews bobbled the ball while trying to take it out of his glove. Fields struck out on a 2-2 pitch and Katz grounded out on an 0-1 pitch, stranding the runners.
LSU starter Ryan Eades didn’t retire the Gamecocks in order in any inning, but he battled into the sixth with the score tied at 1. He got Joey Pankake on a fly ball to start the sixth, then Connor Bright hit a sinking line drive to center that Fields couldn’t come up with and the ball bounced off him for a single. Mainieri brought in Brent Bonvillain, whose first pitch to Vergason was hit to Jones, who started a 4-6-3 double play.
“I just tried to compete and give my team the best chance to win,” Eades said.
“When they got a hit, I just tried to slow myself down, take a deep breath and minimize the damage. ”
LSU took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first for the third consecutive game. With one out Fields narrowly missed a home run as he doubled high off the wall in right. He moved to third on a passed ball by Greiner and scored on Katz’s groundout to shortstop.
Eades worked around trouble in the first two innings before the Gamecocks hit him hard to start the third.
Marzilli led off by going the other way to rip a triple into left-center. On the next pitch, Matthews hit a sacrifice fly, then Walker ripped a double to right. Dantzler’s grounder to first moved Walker to third, but Eades struck out Greiner looking to leave the score tied at 1-1.