HOOVER, Ala. — Between the mutually horrific defense and generally sub-par level of play, you’d have a hard time figuring out this Southeastern Conference Tournament matchup was a rematch of the most recent College World Series Finals.
The stakes weren’t nearly as high, obviously, but for LSU, the reunion came to a similarly frustrating conclusion as its previous tussle with juggernaut Florida.
LSU managed just five hits in the game and failed to take proper advantage of four uncharacteristic errors from Florida. No. 8 seed LSU surrendered an early three-run lead and fell to No. 1 Florida 4-3 at the Hoover Met on Wednesday night.
“We honestly felt like we could play with them,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We came up a little bit short. We came up a little bit short in Omaha in June and a little bit short today against these guys. I don’t think the disparity is that great. We had chances.”
One night earlier, Mainieri feigned disappointment at the news that his club wouldn’t get to face Florida ace Brady Singer. Instead freshman Tommy Mace did his best Singer impersonation, firing seven brilliant innings and working around his own error-prone defense.
LSU mounted a rally against the Florida bullpen once Mace left the game. A popped-up bunt short-circuited the inning, but Jake Slaughter stepped in with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position against Gator closer Michael Byrne.
Slaughter, after fouling a 3-2 pitch off his nether regions, smoked a ball down the third base line. Jonathan India robbed him of a two-run double with a diving play and got up in time to nail Slaughter at first base.
“When I hit it, I thought for sure it was a double play,” Slaughter said. “It was a great play.”
LSU must now play an elimination game on Thursday morning against South Carolina. Florida will face the winner with a chance to advance into the semifinals.
LSU built an early lead thanks to a pair of airmailed throws from Florida second baseman Blake Reeves, both of which LSU cashed in for unearned runs. Slaughter got LSU on the board with a two-run homer to left in the second and Daniel Cabrera tacked on with an RBI single in the third.
Florida responded right back and tied the game in the bottom of the inning. Deacon Liput and India came up with run-scoring knocks sandwiched around an RBI ground ball as Florida pulled even and drove up Hilliard’s pitch count.
Hilliard grinded and did his best to limit the damage to a minimum, but his inability to consistently locate pitches led to one too many jams.
Slaughter slipped over the third base while trying to start an inning-ending double play in the fifth, and one batter later Austin Langworthy chased Hilliard with a two-out RBI single in the fifth as Florida pulled ahead for good.
“Whenever there’s a one-run game like this, you can point to several reasons why you won or why you lost,” Mainieri said. “Last night we made those plays. Tonight they did.”
“I just went to tag the bag and push off,” Slaughter said.
Meanwhile, the LSU offense went lifeless. India gift-wrapped a golden opportunity to tie the game with two errors in sixth inning, but Mace pitched out of it. LSU’s next hit after the Cabrera RBI single came on a seventh inning single from Antoine Duplantis, and he was promptly cut down trying to steal.
Cam Sanders took over from Hilliard and pitched valiantly to give LSU a chance at coming back. He allowed just one hit over 3.1 innings of dominant relief and struck out four. His effort also saved the relief corps for Thursday’s do-or-die game.
LSU goes into Thursday’s elimination game woefully short on pitching options. Mainieri found out shortly before the game that starter AJ Labas won’t be able to pitch due to a return of his shoulder soreness.
“It’s a long road now, and we’ve just got to take it one game at a time,” Mainieri said. “I don’t even know who we’re going to pitch tomorrow, to be honest with you.”