By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
HOOVER, Ala. — The Southeastern Conference Tournament is the LSU Invitational once more.
The Tigers capped off their dominant showing here in in Hoover in style, outlasting Arkansas 4-2 at the Hoover Met Sunday to capture their 12th SEC Tournament Championship and sixth in 11 years under Paul Mainieri.
“We’re three-for-three,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said, referring to LSU’s SEC, SEC West and now SEC Tournament crowns. “All the goals that we set out to reach before the season, so far we’ve done them. Regardless of the ups and downs of the season, we stuck together and we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to so far.”
LSU outscored its four opponents by a combined tally of 35-5 along the way, but Championship Sunday proved to be anything but another rout.
Closer Hunter Newman made things a bit close for comfort in the ninth, issuing two free passes before giving up a two-out RBI single to Eric Cole which put the tying run on base.
Mainieri then elected to intentionally walk Chad Spanberger, putting the winning run on base and moving the tying run into scoring position. Spanberger had homered fives times this week en route to being named SEC Tournament MVP.
“I’ll says it’s not exactly common. It’s the first time I’ve done that in 35 years of coaching,” Mainieri said, acknowledging he’d committed what’s considered a cardinal sin for managers. “You don’t do that, but I felt that not only does the kid have a lot of talent, but he’s extremely hot. The ball must look like a beach ball to him. I just thought to myself that he’s in scoring position standing at home plate.”
The coach put his faith in a veteran closer to throw strikes and wiggle out of another impossible jam.
His gamble paid off.
Newman got No. 3 hitter Luke Bonfield to ground to Robertson, who flipped to Josh Smith at third base for the game-ending face out that set off a raucous dog mile just right of the pitcher’s mound.
“(Newman) likes to make it interesting,” catcher Mike Papierski said, “but he definitely knows how to get out of those situations.”
“That’s what everyone says,” Newman laughed with a sheepish smile. “I mean it’s true though.”
After a tournament earmarked by long balls and mercy-ruled blowouts, the tournament crown was settled via a chippy, low-scoring pitcher’s duel.
Freshman Eric Walker poured cold water on a powerful Hog lineup that entered the game on just as pronounced a power surge as LSU. He held Arkansas to one run on five hits over 7.2 sterling innings, striking out eight to deliver LSU a championship. LSU scored three times in the fourth inning to support his efforts.
The right hander will certainly be a weapon in the hole as LSU begins the NCAA Tournament next weekend. The Tigers will enjoy a celebratory bus ride home Sunday night before hearing their names called as one of eight national seeds on Monday morning.
Walker found himself in the game’s first jam in the second inning after a ground-rule double and a dropped fly ball in right put runners on second and third with one out. The freshman pumped an 89 mph fastball past Grant Kock and induced a fly ball to center to escape unscathed.
The Hogs got on the board one inning later as Cole turned on an inside fastball from Walker and launched a solo home run to right-center field. Walker struck out the side that inning around the homer, fanning the incredibly dangerous Spanberger in the process.
Cooled off for three innings, LSU figured out Hog right-hander Kevin Kopps in the fourth. Singles from Kramer Robertson and Antoine Duplantis sandwiched around an error loaded the bases with nobody out and sent Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn to the bullpen.
Lefty Matt Cronin painted the outside corner with a 3-2 fastball to freeze Greg Deichmann for the first out. Van Horn then brought in righty Cannon Chadwick to face Nick Coomes. Coomes worked a full count and managed to check his swing and draw a walk that forced home the tying run.
That walk prompted the third Arkansas pitching change of the inning. Smith greeted the new hurler with a sharp RBI single to right that put the Tigers ahead. Duplantis then scored on a shallow sac fly to right from Beau Jordan thanks to an aggressive send by third base coach Nolan Cian.
“It was really cool today to come out and get a close victory,” Freeman said. “Obviously anybody can play when everything is going right and everything you’re swinging at is falling. Like Coach said, their pitching was tremendous. Today shows how mature this team is.”
Tempers flared in the bottom of the inning when Arkansas’ Dominic Fletcher took out Cole Freeman at second base to break up a double play. The play was deemed clean and cooler heads eventually prevailed. A pair of graceful catches by Zach Watson in center then ended the inning.
“Honestly I thought it was a clean play,” Freeman said. “It’s a championship. Both teams want it. He went in the way you’re supposed to go in. He did his job.”
Walker found himself in another tough spot in the fifth after LSU elected to intentionally walk Spanberger, putting the tying run on base with two outs. The decision paid off as Walker popped up Bonfield on the first pitch.
Duplantis manufactured an insurance run in the sixth. He led off with a double to the right-center field gap and took third when the outfielders couldn’t pick the ball up quickly. He then scored on a shallow fly ball to center from Coomes, narrowly avoiding a tag via a hook slide at the plate. The play was upheld by video review.
“It happened so fast and you’re just trying to avoid the tag,” Duplantis said. “Lucky enough I did.”
Safeguarding a three-run lead, Walker seemed to get even stronger as the game went on. He allowed just a two-out single in the sixth and mowed down the side in order in the seventh. He returned to get the first two outs of the eighth before exiting to a standing ovation and rhythmic chants of his name.
Lefty Nick Bush came on and served up a double that would’ve been a home run had Deichmann not leaped up and knocked it back into the field of play. Mainieri then went to Zack Hess, who fanned Carson Shaddy on three pitches to end the inning.