“Hit a lot of popups. A lot of room to improve.” Paul mainieri, LSU coach
What bullpen problem?
At least for one night — opening night — LSU answered its biggest question of the preseason with authority.
Ace Aaron Nola struck out six in six innings, but, more importantly, relievers Joe Broussard and Kurt McCune protected a slim lead and LSU hitters did just enough in a 2-0 season-opening win over UNO Friday night at Alex Box Stadium.
Shortstop Alex Bregman, a preseason All-American, and designated hitter Kade Scivicque, a junior college transfer, drove in the Tigers’ runs in front of an announced 9,229 on a cool opening night.
Broussard and McCune stole the spotlight in UNO coach Ron Maestri’s return to the dugout after 29 years as an administrator.
The pair pitched three combined innings without allowing a hit. They struck out four and walked one in 10 batters faced, helping the Tigers avoid the fate of many top 25 teams on opening day. Virginia, Mississippi State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Clemson all lost.
“Happy to get the win,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
His bullpen performance made him just as happy.
LSU lost its top five relievers from a season ago, including school record-tying closer Chris Cotton.
It loomed as an issue during a preseason that saw LSU ranked as high as No. 2 and no worse than 12th in the polls.
How did Broussard and McCune answer the question marks?
“With a lot of pose,” said third baseman Christian Ibarra.
Said coach Paul Mainieri: “Pitched well.”
Hitting? Not so much.
LSU struggled for five innings against UNO starter Raymond Winter, a reliever last year on a UNO team that finished 7-44.
The Tigers got seven hits off of him and stranded a whopping 10 runners overall. They went hitless against UNO’s pair of relievers, Darren McKigney and Seth Laigast.
What was missing? Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes a middle-of-the-order duo that starred for LSU last year.
New cleanup hitter Jared Foster and five-hole batter Chris Chinea combined to go 0 for 8.
In each the third and fifth innings, Foster came to the plate with two on and one out.
The pair were thrusts in the lineup to replace the big-hitting Katz and Rhymes, a duo that – along with Cotton — threw out a trio of first pitches.
Leadoff man Sean McMullen finished 0 for 3 and struck out twice, both against his former high school teammate at Brother Martin, Winter.
Mainieri pointed to opening night butterflies for the hitting woes. His team gets another crack against UNO at 2 p.m. Saturday at Zephyr Field.
“I told the players after the game, ‘I’m 56 years old and I’ve had 32 opening days,” the coach said. “I still get the jitters a little bit, the butterflies in the stomach.’”
Bregman had no problem. He finished 2 for 3, and LSU’s new second baseman, Conner Hale, got the team’s first hit of the year. Hale, hitting in the No. 9 hole, went 2 for 4 and scored a run while making two not-so-routine plays at second.
Nola wasn’t necessarily himself.
He allowed just four hits — his first didn’t come until the fourth inning — but he had to pull himself out of a host of self-induced jams.
He hit three batters through five innings. He hit 11 in 129 innings a year ago.
Meanwhile, the relievers shined.
Broussard entered in the seventh inning and threw five straight balls, but he struck out one each to end the seventh and eighth.
“I thought Broussard really cleaned it up,” Mainieri said. “Ball came out of his hand pretty great.”
Broussard, a junior, had not pitched since 2012. He sat out last season recovering from elbow surgery.
He started his 2014 season with a four-pitch walk. After throwing another ball, pitching coach Alan Dunn and Chinea visited the mound.
Broussard then threw 35 of his next 51 pitches for strikes.
“Just to take a 20-second timeout, take some deep breaths and pound the zone,” Broussard said Dunn told him. “I’m glad that I had that in my first outing so I could get it out the way. Next time I go out there, don’t have to deal with the jitters and not being out there for 19 months. I can just deal with the baseball.”
The ballpark had that opening-day feel.
It began early for some.
Three hours before first pitch at 4 p.m., more than 100 students stood in line for the limited number of student tickets available.