By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
On a night when aces dominated around the Southeastern Conference, Alex Lange made a compelling case to being the nastiest of the bunch.
The right-hander struck out 12 — one off his career high — over six innings of one-run ball and Mike Papierski belted a three-run home run to lift LSU (5-1) past Maryland (1-3), 6-1, in the opener of a three-game series at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night.
“I thought he set the tone for the night,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said of Lange. “A really solid win in a lot of ways against a really solid ball club.”
Just how filthy was LSU’s ace?
Consider that he struck out all nine hitters in the Maryland lineup at least once and finished each of his final three innings with back-to-back strikeouts. Half of his dozen strikeouts were three-pitch at-bats, and 11 of the 12 strikeouts came via the swinging variety.
“Everything was on,” Papierski said. “He’s unbelievable.”
Lange came out of the bullpen dealing. He needed just six pitches to punch out the game’s first two batters. Then, after an error charged to Papierski on a dropped third strike, Lange achieved a baseball oddity by picked up his fourth strikeout of the frame.
“It just sets the tone for the whole game,” Lange said. “Showing the other team that you’re going to pound the zone, and then get strike one and pitch in our counts. When we pitch in our counts, we’re going to be a lot more successful.”
Operating on a strict pitch count, Lange worked 10-pitch inning in the second and third. Kramer Robertson aided his efforts in the second with a spinning pick of a hard-hit ball off a bad hop to begin an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.
LSU got on the board in the bottom of the third inning thanks to a change in approach. After striking out four times in the first two innings against Maryland starter Brian Shaffer, the Tigers were more aggressive early in the count and went back up the middle.
Brennan Breaux led off with a single back through the box. He advanced to third on a wild pitch and a Cole Freeman sacrifice bunt before scoring on Antoine Duplantis’ triple to deep center field. Kramer Robertson followed with an RBI single and came home on a sacrifice fly from Jake Slaughter.
“We were able to come up with a few big hits, and I thought that was the difference in the game,” Robertson said. “Both starting pitchers were pretty dominant.”
Lange ran into trouble in the fourth and Kevin Smith’s ringing double to left field cut the LSU lead to 3-1. After a chat with Alan Dunn, the ace promptly fanned Maryland’s Nos. 8 and 9 hitters on three pitches apiece for his seventh and eighth strikeouts of the evening. He pumped his chest as he walked off the mound.
Papierski erased a leadoff single against Lange in the fifth with a rifled throw to second base for a caught stealing. Lange struck out the next two batters to post his first double-digit strikeout game of 2017, the ninth of his career.
“When he’s throwing both pitches for strikes like that, they can’t sit on anything,” Mainieri said. “They can say all they want about sitting on the fastball and letting the breaking ball go, but it’s a lot easier said than done … I like those three-pitch strikeouts, by the way. They keep his pitch count down.”
Freshman Todd Peterson relived Lange in the seventh, continuing his ascent up the pecking order in Mainieri’s bullpen. The rookie right-hander stranded a runner on third base in the seventh, but Mainieri pulled him after allowing the potential tying runs to reach base in the eighth.
Closer Hunter Newman entered and induced a harmless fly to center to get out of the jam. He’d have nailed down his first save of 2017, but Papierski allowed Mainieri to save his closer thanks to a mammoth three-run home run off a hanging slider in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Instead Austin Bain came on and worked the ninth inning without incident. LSU and Maryland will play the middle game of the series Saturday with first pitch set for 2 p.m. Jared Poche’ will tow the rubber for the first time since his no-hitter.
– With a second-inning single, Jake Slaughter has hit in all six of LSU’s games to begin his career. Fellow freshman Josh Smith extended his own hitting streak to five games.