LSU coach Paul Mainieri quickly beckoned his players into the locker room for an impromptu team meetings after another heartbreaking, oh-what-could-have-been loss on Friday night.
The message was simple: LSU was going to win on Saturday, but somebody needed to step up in the clutch situations that’ve bedeviled the Tigers of late.
Finally, with the season seemingly on the line, a handful of Tigers did.
Austin Bain put LSU ahead with a two-out, two-run single in the seventh inning and the much-maligned LSU bullpen held down the mighty Arkansas lineup over the final four innings to preserve a 6-4 victory on Saturday night and even up the series at Alex Box Stadium.
“Obviously a desperately-needed victory tonight,” Mainieri said. “It was a crazy game.”
Freshman Devin Fontenot had arguably the most critical performance of the night, overcoming two weeks of bullpen futility that had weighed the team down like an anvil tied around its neck.
Fontenot pounded the strike zone with his tailing fastball against a lineup loaded with left-handed power worked a career-high three scoreless innings of one-hit ball after entering in the sixth innings to earn the victory.
Mainieri turned to Caleb Gilbert for the save attempt with Fontenot tiring, but the veteran quickly melted down. He issued a leadoff walk — a cardinal sin for a reliever protected a multiple-run lead — gave up an RBI single and fell behind in another count before getting hooked for Todd Peterson with the tying run at the plate.
Peterson, pumping 96 mph heat, inherited a 2-0 count against center fielder Dominic Fletcher, who already had three hits and a home run on the night. He popped Fletcher up and blew away the dangerous Nos. 3-4 hitters in the Arkansas order with nothing but fastballs.
“It doesn’t get any better better than that,” Peterson said, still bubbling with adrenaline. “That’s exciting. That was a big win. I was getting up and down all night, but that’s part of the reliever life. I think that’s something I’ve really bought into. Just going out there and letting it rip.”
“Peterson got the game ball tonight,” Mainieri added. “That was an amazing performance.”
Having held on for the win, LSU (27-20, 11-12 Southeastern Conference) will go for the series victory against SEC West-leading Arkansas (33-14, 14-9 SEC). Mainieri announced freshman AJ Labas (5-1, 3.18 ERA) will get the ball while Arkansas goes with sophomore Isaiah Campbell (3-4, 4.17 ERA).
LSU came out swinging after the bitter disappointment of Friday night’s 5-4 loss. It started with Ma’Khail Hilliard authoring one of his patented escape acts to keep the game scoreless after Arkansas put men on the corners with nobody out.
Zach Watson, bumped up into the leadoff spot, doubled to right-center field. Antoine Duplantis singled back through the middle and Watson slide around a tag at home plate to get LSU on the board. Daniel Cabrera worked a nine-pitch at-bat before coming through with an RBI single to score Duplantis.
Arkansas tied the game in the third inning with yet another long ball after homering three times in the series opener. Hilliard hung a 2-1 curveball and Fletcher bashed it for a two-run shot to right. It was part of a taxing 30-pitch inning for the freshman.
The Hogs kept grinding away against Hilliard and took the lead after loading the bases with nobody out in the fifth. A four-pitch walked forced in a run, putting Arkansas ahead 3-2, but Hal Hughes made a slick play to begin an inning-ending double play that minimized what could’ve been a catastrophic inning.
That was all for Hilliard, who scattered seven hits and two walks over five innings while striking out four. Both Hilliard and Murphy were at 58 pitches through three innings, but the Arkansas lefty managed to dial in and go deep into the game while Hilliard could not. Murphy retired 10 in a row at one point from the third inning through the sixth.
Murphy wasn’t done in by his pitching, but rather by his own defense. His error on a bunt put the seventh-inning rally in motion. A swinging bunt single by Beau Jordan led off the frame and Murphy departed after Hal Hughes laid down a sacrifice bunt that nearly got mishandled by the Hogs.
Still, the rally needed Bain’s heroics to avoid fizzling in the same way so many scoring chances have of late. Duplantis popped up on the infield for the second out and there was a palpable feeling of dread and deflation in the building. That is until Bain stepped into the box and ripped a first-pitch slider into left field.
“I went up looking for a fastball and saw slider,” Bain admitted. “Somehow my body adjusted. I don’t know how, and then I hit it. That was the process of the at-bat.”
That same suspect Arkansas defense gifted LSU two insurance runs in the eighth inning. A booted ground ball got the inning in motion. With two on and two outs, Watson tapped a ball back to the mound. The pitcher slipped and threw the ball away from his backside, bringing home two more runs.
Those runs, obviously, proved to be crucial. Now LSU will go for a series victory on Sunday that would go a long way toward getting on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. First pitch is set for 2 p.m.