Bulldogs rally to oust Tigers from SEC tourney
HOOVER, Ala. — LSU entered Friday having won each of the previous three Southeastern Conference baseball tournaments for which coach Paul Mainieri’s teams had qualified.
For eight-plus innings in an elimination game against Mississippi State, it appeared the top-seeded Tigers could be on the cusp of engineering another one of those championship runs.
Then came a ninth-inning meltdown in which No. 7 seed State scored two runs to complete a three-run rally, setting the stage for a 4-3 victory in 10 innings.
“A game you seemingly have in hand and then you can’t hold the lead in the ninth inning,” Mainieri said. “Things just didn’t go our way.”
The Tigers will have more important matters at hand soon enough.
Sunday, LSU is expected to learn it will host a regional at Alex Box Stadium next weekend. Monday, it is expected to receive a top-eight national seed for the NCAA tournament.
By winning 42 regular-season games and claiming the SEC’s regular-season title outright, the Tigers (43-16) have put themselves in position to challenge for their first College World Series berth in three years. If they receive a national seed as expected, they would not have to play a postseason game outside of the Box until reaching TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
“It’s a tough loss right now,” LSU shortstop Austin Nola said. “We’re going to analyze it and we’re going to look at where we need to get better, but we’re going to grow from this and we’re going to learn. We’re going to look forward to the next thing.”
Mississippi State (37-22) advanced to meet No. 4 seed Kentucky at noon Saturday with a berth in Sunday’s title game on the line. The Bulldogs won their second one-run game against LSU in three days after losing two such games against the Tigers in the regular season.
It looked like LSU’s trip home would be delayed when the ninth inning started and closer Nick Goody trotted to the mound looking for his 11th save.
Wes Rea launched a leadoff double just inside the right-field line, and Daryl Norris knocked a single to left with one out. Adam Frazier then sent an RBI single into right, making it 3-2 and leaving runners at the corners. Goody hit Tyler Fullerton with a pitch to load the bases, setting up Luis Pollorena’s sacrifice fly to center that scored Brent Brownlee with the tying run.
Pollorena, listed as a pitcher on the State roster, had entered the game for Trey Porter an inning earlier as a pinch runner. He had no hits or RBIs in three previous at-bats this season.
“He’s just a great competitor. Nobody competes harder,” State coach John Cohen said. “There was no doubt in my mind he was going to make contact. I didn’t know if he would get a hit or hit into a double play, but I knew he’d make contact. He’s just that big of a competitor.”
Pollorena wasn’t the last of State’s unlikely heroes.
Mitch Slauter shook off an 0-for-4 start to smash a double to the wall in center off Goody with one out in the 10th. Matthew Britton drove him in with a single off pitcher Nick Rumbelow that caromed off LSU second baseman JaCoby Jones’ outstretched glove and into center field.
Britton was hitting .149 with only seven RBIs before stepping to the plate in the 10th. Like Pollorena, he had entered the game as a pinch runner an inning earlier.
“He threw five straight curveballs,” Britton said of Rumbelow, “so I was thinking fastball the whole time. He threw it. I got the barrel on it.”
Britton’s clutch hit brought a stunning finish to a game LSU controlled throughout.
Ty Ross got the Tigers out to a 2-0 lead in the first when he lined an infield single off the leg of State starter Jacob Lindgren. Austin Nola scored easily from third. Mason Katz motored all the way from second to score, sliding in safely to beat first baseman Rea’s throw from foul territory.
An inning later, Jones advanced from first all the way to third on an Arby Fields groundout, then hustled home on Austin Nola’s groundout to shortstop.
LSU’s offense spent the rest of the afternoon in a funk, but Ryan Eades and the defense kept wiggling out of jams to make sure the 3-0 lead held up.
Raph Rhymes extended to make a diving catch in left with two on and two away in the second. A relay from Katz to Jones to Jordy Snikeris at home kept Rea from scoring on a Sam Frost double in the fourth and resulted in the inning’s final out.
Twice, the Tigers turned double plays behind Eades.
Even after Chris Cotton gave up an RBI single to Hunter Renfroe in the eighth, the Tigers still had a two-run lead when he induced a pair of State groundouts and sent LSU to the ninth three outs from extending its stay.
“I don’t mean to downplay the SEC tournament. I always believed it was important, and I instilled that in our players. That’s why the loss hurt so badly — because they wanted to win. Normally when we come to Hoover, we win this tournament,” Mainieri said. “But we’ll put it behind us in time and get ready for next week. Obviously, next week is what really matters as we go forward.”