When asked about the key to LSU’s season, Paul Mainieri often this spring pointed to the need for Zack Hess to be a Friday night ace and for left fielder Daniel Cabrera to be a run producer from the cleanup spot.
One of those pivotal players faltered on Opening Night, but the other stepped up in a big way to keep LSU from dropping its first season opener since 2001.
The coach hadn’t say much about the homer-hitting prowess of his other corner outfielder, but maybe that’s about to change.
“Those opening games, you just never know what to expect,” Mainieri laughed. “Every year you never know what is going to happen.”
Cabrera homered twice as part of a five-RBI performance to dig LSU out of an early hole and Antoine Duplantis homered twice late as the Tigers bashed UL-Monroe 12-7 at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night.
Of LSU’s 12 runs, 11 were driven in by the third and fourth hitters in the order. Cabrera and Duplantis finished a combined 5-for-9 with those four dingers and 11 RBI.
Cabrera is an All-American caliber slugger who’ll be counted on to provide pop all season long, but the power surge from Duplantis was a bit shocking. He’d never hit more than two home runs in a season at LSU.
“I’ve made some minor swing adjustments that have been feeling good,” Duplantis said. “Other than that … I was just going to let it rip this weekend. I’m not going to feel for anything. Just let it rip and see what happens.”
The fireworks from Cabrera and Duplantis masked what was an otherwise ugly debut for the nation’s No. 1 team. Hess’ struggles and sloppy defense kept the Tigers in catch-up mode for most of the evening.
“They put some good swings on me,” Hess said, “but luckily we have Daniel Cabrera and Antoine Duplantis. Those guys can really pick you up. They put the team on their back and carried us to victory tonight.”
LSU found itself in a 3-0 hole before much of the capacity crowd settled into their seats. ULM right field Trent Tingelstad crushed an RBI double to straightaway center field and Chad Bell followed with a two-run bomb to left.
A two-run single from Cabrera narrowed the deficit to one, but ULM quickly got those runs back. Tinglestad launched a solo homer in the third and another run came home after Josh Smith dropped a popup at shortstop.
Hess didn’t make it out of the fourth inning and left having been tagged for five runs (four earned) on six hits. Both he and Mainieri attributed his struggles to his lack of feel for the slider.
It’s the second year in a row that Hess struggled in his season debut, and the hole could’ve been worse were it not for a leaping snag by first baseman Drew Bianco to end the fourth inning.
“He was throwing hard, but he was a one-pitch pitcher,” Mainieri said. “They hit him hard because they’re good fastball hitters. He’s going to get better … I’m not down on him.”
Eric Walker played a stabilizing role in his first appearance since the 2017 College World Series.
Walker took over to begin the fifth inning and painted corners for 2.1 scoreless frames as Cabrera single-handedly clubbed LSU back into a tie game.
Duplantis put LSU ahead with a monstrous two-run blast in the seventh inning, but that lead turned out to be short lived.
An error sparked charged to Bianco sparked a ULM rally. A wild pitch moved the tying runs into scoring position and left fielder Ryan Humeniuk tied the game with a two-run single off Devin Fontenot.
The Warhawks wasted little time in returning the favor as LSU managed to rally for the winning run without a hit. Two errors sandwiched around two walks allowed Brock Mathis to come home with the winning run.
That passed the baton to Duplantis, who crushed his second career grand slam into the right-field bleachers. It was that haymaker that finally put away a scrappy ULM bunch.
“I asked him after the first one,” Walker said, “‘Where’s that juice coming from man?’ He did it again. That’s just the hitter he is. He takes what they give him. I guess it was an elevated pitch and he drove it.”
LSU will be back in action against Army on Saturday afternoon. First pitch is set for 2 p.m. as highly-touted freshman Landon Marceaux will make his debut.