Valek improves to 4-0 in as many starts
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
For the first time all weekend, the sun shone high in the Baton Rouge sky as LSU and Ball State got together for a Sunday rubber match at Alex Box Stadium.
The floodgates opened up not long after.
Kramer Robertson and Jake Fraley, the table-setters in the lineup, reached base safely four times each and accounted for five runs between them. Catcher Mike Papierski set a new career-high with three hits and matched his previous best with three RBI.
LSU (12-3) pounded out 14 hits and began the afternoon a blistering 7-for-13 with runners in scoring position to dispatch Ball State (8-9), 10-6, and secure a series victory in the final weekend before Southeastern Conference play begins.
“The top of our order, I think, is really starting to set the tone,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “But quite frankly, I think one-through-nine are doing a great job. We’ve become a formidable offensive team.”
Again staked to an early lead, left-hander John Valek managed to keep the Cardinals at arm’s length despite not having his best stuff. The crafty southpaw scattered eight hits over five innings of one-run ball to win for the fourth time in as many starts.
“I thought John was vintage John Valek,” Mainieri said. “He’s not going to walk people and he’s not going to strike a lot of people out. A lot of the base hits he gave up were ground balls that happened to find holes.”
Continuing to cement his strangle hold on the Sunday starter job, Valek (4-0) joined Alex Lange (2015) in having started and won the first four appearances of his LSU career.
The question now becomes how the Akron transfer will translate the success into SEC play.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Valek said. “It’s been successful to this point, and whether it’s SEC, it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to keep pitching the way I’ve been pitching and hopefully the success continues.”
LSU manufactured a run in the first without hitting the ball out of the infield. Robertson reached on a two-base throwing error and scored with two outs when Beau Jordan beat out a high chopper to third base for an RBI infield single.
Ball State pulled even with some two-out thunder in the third. After Papierski gunned down a would-be base stealer at second, Alex Call doubled to left and scored on a two-out single from Caleb Stayton.
It wouldn’t stay tied for long.
Antoine Duplantis broke the stalemate and extended his hitting streak to 15 games with an RBI single. Beau Jordan singled to re-load the bases and Bryce Jordan lifted a sacrifice fly to center. Papierski followed with a RBI single through the right side.
The Tigers then batted around in the fourth for the second time in as many days. Robertson (2-for-4, BB) and Farley (3-for-4, BB) plated runners with successive hits and scored when Papierski struck the big blow, a two-run single to right off a 0-2 offering to cap a seven run onslaught over two frames.
“When there’s runners in scoring position, you just look for your pitch and try to put a barrel on it,” Papierski said. “Middle of the order, 3-4-5-6-7, you want to drive in runs. That’s just what we try to do.”
With Valek out of the game, the Cardinals were able to cut into the lead thanks to ineffective relief from the LSU bullpen.
Austin Bain allowed a pair to come around and score in the sixth. Jesse Stallings was charged with three earned runs after retiring just one of the five men he faced in the seventh. The number could have been worse had Russell Reynolds not come on and stranded a pair of runners.
Sandwiched in between, Greg Deichmann sent a 2-1 offering into the right field bleachers for a two-run bomb. His second home run of the season provided valuable breathing room against an opposing lineup that never went away.
LSU pitching didn’t work a clean inning until Hunter Newman came on and set the side down in order with a punchout in the eighth. Closer Caleb Gilbert then came on to work a 1-2-3 ninth with two strikeouts in a non-save situation.
“At the end of the day, we held on,” Mainieri said. “I was really glad to play Ball State. They’re a program I’ve always respected, and I love their coach and he’s a friend of mine. But I’m really glad to see them leave town. They gave us all we could handle for three days.”
The Tigers will be back in action Wednesday night against UNO before welcoming Alabama to the Box next weekend.
– O’Neal Lochridge was in the original lineup at third base but was a late scratch after feeling his back stiffen up during batting practice, Mainieri said. “He just couldn’t cut loose. He wanted to play, but I want him to be ready for conference play healthy. I don’t want to be dealing with this. Hopefully he’s ready for Wednesday.”
– Left-hander Jake Latz played catch Saturday from 150 feet, Mainieri said. After a “positive” showing with no pain, Mainieri said Latz is on track to throw his first flat-ground bullpen session a week from Monday. He could gradually begin working off the inclined mound a week after that should all go well. “I’m hoping some time in the next month he’ll be ready to be on the mound and face hitters and see what he looks like.”
– Mainieri on Valek heading into SEC play: “He’s not going to be an overpowering guy, but he’s done well thus far. I think he deserves a chance to show he can pitch in this league. And right now we don’t really have a better option in my opinion.”