Tigers run their win streak to 10 straight
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Forget the rally possum, those looking for the heart and soul of LSU’s late-season surge need look no further than shortstop.
Kramer Robertson’s ascension from a two-year bench player to his team’s unquestioned leader has been nothing short of remarkable, fueled by big hits and feats of toughness along the way.
That knack for late-game heroics came through again when LSU needed it on Friday night, as Robertson’s two-out RBI single to left in the bottom of the eighth broke the tie and lifted the Tigers to a 5-4 win over No. 1 Florida in a wild back-and-forth affair at Alex Box Stadium.
“I don’t know how many games he’s won for us with clutch base hits,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “but there’s been a few.”
“He’s Mr. Clutch,” said Antoine Duplantis, who had four hits of his own.
Robertson wouldn’t have been in position for such theatrics if not for the efforts of the Nos. 9-1-2 hitters in the lineup. The trio of Cole Freeman, Duplantis and Jake Fraley combined for nine hits in 13 at-bats with three RBI and four runs scored.
Seemingly every rally started with Freeman, who reached base safely in all four trips to the plate to turn the lineup over for Duplantis and Fraley at the top. He scored three of LSU’s five runs, including the game-winner.
“He’s got to be the best nine-hole hitter in the country,” Robertson said of his double-play partner. “If there’s a better one, I’d like to see him.”
He continued, shouting over the postgame fireworks: “Scouts aren’t going to fall in love with him when they look at him because he’s not 6-4 hitting a lot of home runs, but he’s a guy I’d like to have on my team to go to war with any day because he’s a baller and he plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
Starter Jared Poche’ wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the first long before the fireworks began, but his defense allowed an unearned run to come home in the second to begin the scoring for the weekend.
Jeremy Vasquez’s two-out single extended the inning, and he scored from first on Dalton Guthrie’s bunt single when Jordan Romero’s throw skipped past Greg Deichmann and rolled all the way into the LSU bullpen.
Poche’, who fought his command early, issued back-to-back walks to load the bases again in the third before getting Ryan Larson to ground a 2-0 offering to second base, averting disaster once again. He stranded seven runners on base in those first three frames alone.
LSU (38-16, 18-10 SEC) failed to muster a hit against A.J. Puk, but the projected first-overall selection in this summer’s MLB Draft left the game in the third inning accompanied by a Florida trainer with what was characterized as a “stomach ailment.”
Right-handed reliever Dane Dunning was forced to enter the game in a hurry, inheriting a runner on first and a 2-0 count to Duplantis, and the freshman outfielder ambushed him with a perfectly-executed hit-and-run single into right field. Jake Fraley tied the game one batter later with a sharp RBI single back up the middle that extend his hitting streak to 15 games.
“We just battled,” Mainieri said. “We didn’t hit a ton, but 12 hits, that’s pretty good against a staff like Florida.”
Effectively given a clean slate, Poche’ locked in. He induced a 4-6-3 double play to end the fourth in inning and then struck out the side in the fifth against the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters in the Florida (43-10, 18-9 SEC) lineup.
LSU briefly took the lead in the bottom of the fifth after successive singles by Duplantis and Fraley put a rally in motion. Romero plated Duplantis with a run-scoring grounder to short, but Florida quickly re-tied the game when Mike Rivera belted a 2-0 Poche’ offering deep and gone to left to lead off the sixth.
Poche’, nearly knocked out of the game early, managed to get off the ropes and gut his way through six innings of two-run (one earned) ball. He scatted seven hits and three walks while striking out four in what’ll likely be his final regular season appearance at the Box.
“I don’t know how he does it sometimes,” Mainieri said. “I really don’t. He just keeps battling out there … Typical Poche’, just giving his team a chance to win.”
Freeman broke the tie in the sixth inning with a two-out RBI double down the left field line that brought Deichmann home from first base on an aggressive send by third base coach Nolan Cain. He advanced to third on an errant relay and scored on Duplantis’ infield single for insurance.
However, that advantage wouldn’t last long. Russell Reynolds relieved Poche’ to begin the seventh, and Nelson Maldonado’s two-out, two-run single to right field pulled the Gators even once again in a back-and-fourth affair.
The two teams will be back in action at 11 a.m. Saturday morning to complete Thursday night’s suspended opener, which was halted in the third inning of a scoreless affair. The series finale, slated to go seven innings, will begin at 3:30 p.m. Mainieri declined to divulge his pitching plan for either game.
Mississippi State, Texas A&M and South Carolina have already clinched byes in the SEC Tournament, and LSU would need to sweep tomorrow’s double header to leapfrog Florida into the top four. Otherwise, the Gators will get the fourth bye.