Tigers tied for third place in SEC West at 14-10
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Brennan Breaux entered the weekend with one career hit to show for his 20 collegiate at-bats, hardly the start the former standout from St. Thomas More envisioned for his freshman campaign.
All the rookie did next was collect hits in his next four at-bats, driving in four runs — he entered the weekend with one career RBI, which came on a bases-loaded walk against Grambling in a game he pitched in — momentarily raising his batting average by 158 points in the process.
The fourth of those hits was a two-out, two-run single scorched back through the box to break a scoreless tie in Sunday’s relatively drama-free series finale.
“You work every day in practice for the hope of your number being called,” Breaux said. “When your number does get called, you have to be ready for it. It’s just a matter of putting in the work and being ready when your time comes.”
Caleb Gilbert, another freshman, tossed five shutout innings in his first career start and Jordan Romero belted a three-run home run to break the game open as LSU (31-16, 14-10 SEC) handled Arkansas (26-22, 7-17 SEC), 7-1, to complete a three-game sweep at Alex Box Stadium.
Breaux likely wouldn’t have even gotten a chance to swing the bat all series had Beau Jordan and Brody Wofford, the first two left fielders deployed by Paul Mainieri on Saturday night, not been pulled for separate defensive blunders.
After his Saturday-night heroics, Mainieri penciled in the rookie for his third start of the season in left field. And, as so often is the case in baseball, his first at-bat came in a big spot, with runners on second and third base and two outs in a scoreless game.
“It wasn’t a reward so much as I thought having him in the lineup gave us the best chance to win today,” Mainieri said. “But there was also a message to be sent to the team. You can be in a reserve situation and maintain a great attitude and be ready to go, and then when you get your opportunity you take advantage of it.
“I think there’s a message to be sent there to the rest of the team as well.”
Breaux battled with Arkansas starter Keaton McKinney, spoiling tough pitches before getting a 2-2 fastball inside and keeping his hands inside to drill it back through the middle to score Romero (HBP) and Jordan (single).
“It’s a learning experience along the way,” Breaux said of keeping focus while not being in the everyday lineup. “You get your workout in in a different way. The reps you take in practice. The reps you take in batting practice. They all matter.”
Gilbert, LSU’s former closer, worked economically in recording seven of his first eight outs via ground balls, with the other coming on an outfield assist to end the first when Luke Bonfield took too wide a turn rounding second base on Austin Cantron’s single to right.
The right-hander retired eight men in a row after allowing a leadoff single to begin the second, including a quick 1-2-3 shutdown inning with a strikeout after Breaux’s single gave him a lead to protect. He heavily relied the two-seam fastball he showcased at Ole Miss, which trades velocity for movement.
“I probably threw 80 percent of my fastballs were two-seams today,” Gilbert said. “That definitely helped get the ball low in the zone.”
There were some breaks along the way as well, like the base-running mistake in the first or a batter’s interference call in the fifth that drew the ire of Dave Van Horn, the second such call against the Hogs this weekend. The decision turned a strikeout and stolen base into a double play.
But Gilbert, who’d scuffled a bit working in relief of late, did his best work came with men on base. He scattered five hits and a walk while striking out two, holding the Hogs hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position and 1-for-6 with men on base.
“It worked out really like we had hoped,” said Mainieri, who added he and Alan Dunn made the decision to start Gilbert in the week. “He wasn’t perfect, even though he put up five zeroes … But he did what he had to do, and you can’t knock a kid who goes out there and pitches five shutout innings.”
The LSU offense went back to work against McKinney and a tired Razorback bullpen in the fifth inning to extend the lead. Cole Freeman manufactured a run all by himself with a single up the middle followed by a stolen base. He advanced to third on a ground ball to the right side and scored on a wild pitch.
Jake Fraley drew a walk, which prompted Van Horn to replace McKinney with reliever Weston Rogers. Kramer Robertson, still nursing that fat lip, followed with a single to set things up for Romero.
Rogers fell behind in the count 3-0, and Mainieri gave his cleanup hitter what he later called the ’emphatic green light.’ Romero got a cookie and hammered it — TrakMan registered the exit velocity at 101 mph — into the left-field bleacher for his eighth home run of the season.
“Mainieri is always looking for me to take on deep when I get the opportunity,” Romero said. “Any hitter loves getting the 3-0 green light.”
“I didn’t want him to walk,” Mainieri said. “I wanted him to hit.”
Parker Bugg relieved Gilbert to begin the sixth inning and kept the Hogs bats quiet. He retired nine of the 10 batters he faced over three innings of one-hit ball. Jesse Stallings came on and allowed a two-out RBI single to Cullen Gassaway in the ninth to break up the shutout.
With the win, LSU is now tied with Ole Miss third place in the SEC West, though the Rebels own the tiebreaker by virtue of a series win in Oxford last weekend. LSU now hits the road for a five game trip that’ll feature two games at Notre Dame and three at Tennessee.
– Kramer Robertson said he’ll go to the dentist tomorrow to get his top teeth re-wired, adding the damage would be worse if he didn’t already have wiring in his mouth from the ground ball that hit him in the face prior to the season opener. “It hurts worse than it did last night,” he said, adding it remained painful for him to attempt to eat or drink.
– Quote of the weekend: “It looks like a flat tire.” – Paul Mainieri on Kramer Robertson’s upper lip.
– Mainieri said John Valek III will make the start at Notre Dame on Tuesday night.
– Asked about Jared Poche’, Mainieri said he’s planning on using him in relief for an inning or so at Notre Dame after the lefty lasted just 1.1 innings Saturday night. That doesn’t change his status for next weekend at Tennessee, Mainieri said.
– Fraley extended his hitting streak to eight games with a two-out RBI single in the eighth, which extended the LSU lead to 7-0.