Paul Mainieri wins career game No. 1,300
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Alex Lange pointed his coveted right arm skyward and skipped over the first base line as the crowd at Alex Box Stadium serenaded him with a thunderous standing ovation on his way back to the dugout.
Vanderbilt had him on the ropes early, but the sophomore shook it off and settled in. He allowed just a pair of solo shots over 6.1 stellar innings of work against the SEC’s highest-scoring lineup.
Coupled with some two-out magic, Lange’s efforts delivered Paul Mainieri career victory No. 1,3000 and LSU (21-9, 6-5 SEC) a series victory by virtue of a 3-2 nail-biter over Vanderbilt (24-7, 6-5 SEC) on Friday night.
“You can’t do what he did if you don’t have something special about you,” Mainieri said. “That’s why I get so tired of criticism of Alex because his numbers aren’t what they were last year … What he did tonight, the best compliment I can give him: Aaron Nola-ish.”
Lange quickly jumped ahead in the count 1-2 on Vanderbilt leadoff hitter Ro Coleman in the first inning. Having battled back to a full count, the diminutive outfielder took the eighth pitch of the at-bat deep and gone down the right field line for a leadoff homer.
It took 39 pitches — the byproduct of five full counts — but Lange popped up Alonzo Jones to escape the frame without allowing further damage.
Sitting in the dugout, Lange thought back to his College World Series debut, the one where he allowed three runs in the first before settling in for a complete game victory that saved LSU’s season.
“I’m just thinking back to Omaha,” Lange said. “It’s easy to lay down and just quit and say whatever, it’s not my day. But you can buckle down and keep your team in the ballgame after a rough first inning and take them as deep as you can.”
Mainieri added: “That’s what I told him after the first inning. Everyone thinks you’re coming out, everyone thinks you can’t do it. You’re going to shut these guys down.”
After the first inning, pitching coach Alan Dunn altered the gameplan. Since Vanderbilt wasn’t swinging at any of Lange’s off-speed stuff, he began calling more fastballs with two strikes.
That spurred a stretch of 12 in a row retired by Lange and he needed just 46 pitches to complete the next four innings. He sat down 14 of 15 batters faced before Bryan Reynolds’ long solo shot in the sixth brought the Commodores within 3-2.
After the blast, which was clocked off the bat at a whopping 108.4 mph, Lange came back with back-to-back punchouts to finish the inning with a flurry. He froze catcher Jason Delay on a 3-2 heater to end the evening. He notched a ninth strikeout in the seventh before giving way to reliever Hunter Newman.
“Obviously they’re approach tonight was to lay off the breaking ball and hit the hard stuff,” Lange said. “But I felt like we executed some changeups in good counts that kept them off the fastball. Just, when a team has made that kind of adjustment to you, you’ve got to adjust back.”
Commodore ace Kyle Wright, meanwhile, retired five of the first six men he faced with relative ease. Then an innocuous single to right field off the bat of Chris Reid sparked a two-out rally.
Wright walked Mike Papierski on four pitches, and Cole Freeman tied the game with a RBI single into left field. Both Papierski and Freeman moved into scoring position on a throw to the plate, and Antoine Duplantis snuck a two-run single through the right side to give LSU a 3-1 lead.
LSU’s first six hits came over a nine at-bat span with two outs. It wasn’t until the seventh inning a Tiger registered a base hit with less than two down in a given inning.
“That was nice because that’s a thing we’ve really been focused on in the past,” Duplantis said. “Two-out hits and putting some crocked numbers on the board.”
Clinging to a 3-2 lead — LSU wasted golden chances to tack on in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings — Newman entered the game and dominated.
He struck out five of the first six batters he faced — all on devastating 12-6 curveballs — to strand a two-out double in the eighth. It capped a string of 10 consecutive outs recorded via the strikeout.
Mainieri stuck with Newman to close things out in the ninth. He got Delay to pop up to Freeman in foul territory before pinch hitter Walker Grisanti legged out an infield chopper that Robertson couldn’t get out of his glove. Mainieri came out to chat after a soft groundout moved the tying run into scoring position.
“I wasn’t going to take him out,” Mainieri said after the game. “I was just going out there to pump him up and tell him we all believed in him to make those pitches.”
Newman struck out Karl Ellison on a 1-2 curve to preserve the result and clinch LSU’s first series victory against Vanderbilt in the Mainieri era. It also lifts a team that began league play at 2-5 above .500 in the SEC for the first time this season.
“It’s a big morale booster, it’s a big confidence booster,” Lange said. “It’s showing all these young guys that we can do it and it’s not just a bunch of talk all the old guys are saying. This team is capable of going far and doing some damage in this thing. We’ve got a big game tomorrow to try to finish this thing off.”
LSU goes for the sweep Saturday at 2 p.m. with John Valek III on the mound. Vanderbilt will try to salvage the series behind right-hander Hayden Stone.