MSU’s Stratton stymies LSU
HOOVER, Ala. — When he faced LSU in the regular season, Mississippi State right-hander Chris Stratton gave up only four hits and struck out 17 in 8.2 innings, but the Tigers rallied for the first of back-to-back one-run victories in the mid-March series and Stratton received a no-decision.
Wednesday afternoon at the Southeastern Conference tournament, the junior ace helped the Bulldogs gain a measure of revenge in their own one-run win.
Stratton threw six strong innings, allowing five hits and striking out eight as State built an early lead.
Caleb Reed and Jonathan Holder took care of LSU from there, combining for three perfect innings of relief to seal a 3-2 victory before 7,019 fans at Regions Park.
Top-seeded LSU (42-15) will meet No. 9 seed Ole Miss in an elimination game at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. The sixth-seeded Bulldogs (36-21) will play No. 4 seed Kentucky in the winners bracket about 30 minutes after the LSU-Ole Miss game concludes.
“They just all pitched very well,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I think it was just a matter of going up against a team with an outstanding pitching staff.”
Stratton (11-1) leads the SEC in wins and ERA, and is listed by Baseball America as the 18th-best prospect for the MLB draft next month.
A pitcher of similar skill will look to help LSU rebound Thursday when Kevin Gausman takes the hill against Ole Miss on the heels of back-to-back complete-game efforts to close the regular season. The Tigers seemingly wrapped up a top-eight national seed by winning the SEC regular-season title, but they’d like to leave no doubt about it by winning a game or two in Hoover.
LSU won five straight games to win the SEC tournament in 2009 after losing to Vanderbilt in the opener. That was under the old eight-team format. Because the Tigers received a bye as the top seed in the expanded 10-team field, they only need three wins over three days to reach the championship game Sunday.
“It’s not a hurdle that’s beyond our capabilities if we play well enough to succeed,” Mainieri said.
Mississippi State became the first team at the tournament to reach two wins after sweeping Kentucky to finish the regular season.
“Our kids feel like we’re on a roll,” State coach John Cohen said.
The roll Stratton has been on all year led Mainieri to be creative in putting together Wednesday’s batting order. Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes each moved up a spot behind leadoff man Austin Nola to give LSU its most consistent three hitters at the top of the lineup.
Tyler Moore batted fourth, Grant Dozer fifth and Arby Fields sixth so that LSU would have three straight lefties (Fields, a switch-hitter, bats from the left side against right-handers) stacked together.
Rhymes went 2-for-4 with singles in his first two at-bats.
Katz battled back from a couple of early strikeouts and — after falling behind 0-2 in his third at-bat — scored LSU’s only two runs when he knocked in JaCoby Jones and Nola on a single into left field on a 3-2 pitch in the fifth.
But the Tigers made very little noise as Stratton and the State bullpen showed the crowd at Regions Park why the Bulldogs had the league’s lowest earned run average this season.
Stratton finished his day after State went up 3-2 in the sixth, facing four batters and leaving Grant Dozar stranded at second.
Then, Reed retired six straight Tigers in the seventh and eighth. Then, Holder got a groundout and two strikeouts in the ninth to record his eighth save.
“The difference-maker today was the way we pitched,” Cohen said.
When the LSU offense did show life, the State defense answered.
Right after providing the two-run single, Katz was thrown out by Mitch Slauter trying to steal second with Rhymes at the plate. After drawing a walk in the third, Jones blew through LSU coach Javi Sanchez’s stop sign at second and was thrown out trying to reach third on a Rhymes single.
With two outs in the seventh and State up one, left fielder DeMarcus Henderson extended to make a backhanded catch and rob the speedy Jones of extra bases.
“If he doesn’t make that catch, we’ve obviously got a runner in scoring position,” Mainieri said. “If it goes all the way to the wall, who knows what may happen.”
Mainieri hoped LSU could win its first game at the tournament only using starter Aaron Nola for a couple of innings and then turning things over to a parade of relievers. Nola was so strong in retiring six straight batters that Mainieri almost had a change of heart, but instead stuck to the original plan and used six pitchers out of the bullpen.
The Bulldogs immediately got to Brent Bonvillain in the third, producing a 2-0 lead on four singles.
State got its other run a half inning after Katz temporarily made it a 2-2 tie, with Slauter reaching on a double and Henderson sending him home with a single to center.