Kevin Gausman started Friday night’s game as though he might only last about six innings, but he wound up throwing his first complete game of the year and leading LSU to a 2-1 victory against Vanderbilt in Alex Box Stadium.
Gausman (8-1) gave up a run in the third inning, needed 70 pitches to complete four innings and 90 pitches to complete five. But he got more efficient as the game went along, finishing with a five-hitter and 11 strikeouts — one short of his career high — on 123 pitches.
The Tigers (39-11, 17-8 Southeastern Conference) clinched the No. 1 seed out of the Western Division and one of the two first-round byes in the conference tournament. They’ll play the Commodores (24-25 and 11-14) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“That was just a great baseball game all-around,” said Gausman, whose only other complete game came against Tennessee as a freshman last season. “I’m just glad I got to be a part of it. Their guy (T.J. Pecoraro) was great for eight innings. I think that was the best combined stuff I’ve had. I was really comfortable throwing any pitch in any count.”
Pecoraro (0-4) gave up two runs in the second, then allowed just two base runners the rest of the game as he limited LSU to five hits and one walk.
“He settled into a groove,” said designated hitter Grant Dozar, who had two of the Tigers hits in three at-bats. “He was throwing three quality pitches for strikes whenever he wanted to and we could never get comfortable in the batter’s box.”
Raph Rhymes led off the second by beating out a grounder up the third-base line for a single, his only hit in three at-bats, leaving his NCAA-leading batting average at .497.
After Tyler Moore flied out, Dozar singled Rhymes to second and Ty Ross singled Rhymes home as Dozar reached third. Tyler Hanover drilled a line drive into left-center that looked like it would be an extra-base hit, but center fielder Connor Harrell made a diving catch. Dozar tagged up and scored on the sacrifice fly to make it 2-0.
The Commodores cut the lead in half in the third. With one out Vince Conde became Vanderbilt’s first base runner as he singled up the middle. After Jack Lupo struck out, Tony Kemp walked. Mike Yastrzemski hit a slow roller up the right side. Moore grabbed the ball and flipped to Gausman, but Gausman couldn’t find the bag with his foot and he whiffed on an attempted swipe tag. Conde raced home from second to make it 2-1.
“I don’t know what I was doing there,” Gausman said. “I got over and the throw took me to the side a little bit. I tried to make a tag like a first baseman and he got in there.”
Both pitchers found a groove after that. Gausman struck out two in both the fourth and the fifth as he compiled seven strikeouts in a span of 11 outs. The Commodores’ only base runner in the middle innings – Conde, who signled with one out in the fifth – was thrown out by Ross as he tried to steal second.
Conrad Gregor led off the seventh with a single, then Gausman struck out Connor Harrell, Spencer Navin and Connor Castellano consecutively. Gausman got the Commodores in order in the eighth, striking out one.
“I threw almost all sinking fastballs and I don’t think they had seen that before,” Gausman said. “After the third inning we realized they were going to be a fastball-hitting team, so we knew if we were going to throw it, it had to have some movement on it.”
Pecoraro was just as good. After yielding a leadoff single to Arby Fields in the third, he retired 13 consecutive batters, striking out three of them.. The streak ended with one out in the seventh when Dozar hit a sharp bouncer that kicked off of Gregor at first and skipped into right field for a single. Ross followed by lining to center and Dozar took off for second and was doubled off. Pecoraro got the Tigers in order in the eighth.
Gausman started the ninth, but closer Nick Goody and left-hander Chris Cotton were both ready in the bullpen. After Yastrzemski flied out leading off, Anthony Gomez singled to center.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri went to the mound to talk to Gausman and the entire infield and left Gausman in, which drew a loud cheer from the crowd of 6,535.
“I was like, ‘Coach, I know you’re not going to take me out here,’ ” Gausman said. “He said, ‘No, of course not. I feel comfortable here.’ ”
Mainieri said he wanted some reassurance from Gausman and Ross that Gausman was still strong and confident after throwing 121 pitches. He liked what he heard, so instead of bringing in Cotton to face the left-handed Gregor, he let Gausman go one more batter. Then he was going to Goody.
But two pitches later, Gregor hit into a 3-6-3 double play and Gausman had his complete game.
“The way he pitched the last four or five innings,” Mainieri said, “that’s what the top pick in the draft looks like.”
In the last six innings, Gausman allowed three singles and had seven strikeouts.
“That was one of the most efficient games I’ve seen him pitch,” Ross said. “He got better as the game went on. He was locked in more and more. That was big-league stuff that we all saw here tonight.”
Gausman’s gem enabled LSU to improve to 14-4 in one-run games, including 11-3 in SEC one-run games.
“When you’ve been in this many close games and you’ve won this many,” Dozar said, “you have lot of confidence in the late innings that the guys on the mound and the guys at the plate are going to get the job done.”
The Tigers have more work to do, as Mississippi State and Arkansas can still tie them for first in the West, though LSU would still get the top seed because of tiebreakers. LSU and South Carolina, who play next week in Columbia, S.C., remained tied for the overall lead.
“Coach Mainieri and all our coaches worry about that stuff,” Ross said. “As players we’re just focused on the next game.”