By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
HOUSTON — The only safe lead in Sunday’s wild finale to the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic was one that ended that game.
Comebacks and unconventional rallies were the order of the day as Texas Tech defeated LSU 5-4 in a walk off fashion at Minute Maid Park.
With the game tied 4-4, LSU coach Paul Mainieri elected to have closer Hunter Newman intentionally walk Hunter Hargrove to lead the bases for Tanner Gardner.
LSU applied an overshift, and Newman induced a ground ball that would’ve rolled into the teeth of the shift, but Newman stuck out his foot and the ball deflected into the vacated area to the right of third base. The winning run came home and set off a Red Raider celebration.
“It was a back and forth game between two good teams,” Mainieri said, “and at the end, kind of an unlucky thing for us. I think we had him played perfectly. It looked like it was going to be a routine ground ball to (shortstop) Kramer (Robertson), and Hunter just kind of reacted and kicked the ball. It ended up being a bad break for us.”
Texas Tech got to the LSU bullpen for four runs between two separate rallies in the game’s final three innings. The common thread was free passes. A leadoff walk began a three-run seventh inning and Newman hit the batter who came around to score the game-winning run.
LSU needed some quirky late-game heroics of its own just to ensure there even was a bottom of the ninth.
Trailing 4-3 and down to its final out, LSU tied the game as Beau Jordan came home on a wild pitch. Rankin Woley led off the inning with a pinch-hit single to center, and Jordan, who entered as a pinch runner, advanced to second and third base on successive ground balls.
“Tough loss, but I’m proud of the guys,” Mainieri said. “I thought they played well in a lot of ways. Just didn’t play quite well enough to be able to pull it off against a good team. But I’m not discouraged at all. I thought our guys competed real hard and had a chance to win. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.”
Prior to the late-game rallies, the story of the day was unquestionably Eric Walker. He didn’t factor in the decision, but Walker fired six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts, looking quite at home on the mound of a Major League field facing one of the nation’s best hitting clubs.
“I think I just kind of got back to being myself today,” Walker said. “I felt better than my other two starts, and I’m going to try to do the same things throughout the season. My first two starts I had to battle a little bit. Today it felt a little bit easier to go out and pitch my game.”
LSU got on the board in the second inning. Greg Deichmann, normally known for his slugging exploits, beat out an infield single to begin the inning. He scored the game’s first run on Jordan Romero’s two-out single to right field.
Texas Tech would pull even in the bottom half of the inning. Walker struck out three of the first five hitters he faced, but Ryan Long took the freshman deep and gone to right field for a solo home run that knotted the game at 1-1.
The pitchers took control of the game from there. Texas Tech right-hander Ryan Shetter stymied the Tigers to just three hits over five innings before giving way to the bullpen. Walker recorded all seven of his strikeouts during the first four innings.
“Eric Walker was phenomenal,” Mainieri said. “We’ve always been high on him and knew that he could do it. I’m sure he had a lot of emotions being back here in his home state in a Big League ball park. I thought he handled himself just remarkably well.”
Both teams threatened in the sixth. LSU had two on with two outs, but Josh Smith bounced out to shortstop to end the threat. The rookie third baseman more than atoned in the bottom of the inning, turning in a backhanded diving stop to rob a would-be RBI double and end the inning.
Walker was briefly in line for the victory after LSU leaped ahead thanks to a two-out rally in the seventh. Mike Papierski dunked a single into left off a 0-2 pitch and Brennan Breaux legged out an infield single to turn the lineup over.
Texas Tech elected to intentionally walk Cole Freeman following a pass ball that allowed both runners to advance. Antoine Duplantis quickly fell behind in the count, 0-2, but rocketed a two-run single into center field to put the Tigers ahead 3-1 heading into the seventh inning stretch.
It wouldn’t last long as Texas Tech promptly rallied for three runs against the LSU bullpen.
All three runs were charged to Todd Peterson, who upon entering issued a walk and allowed a single to center to ignite the rally. A flared single to shallow right brought home one run and a wild pitch tied the game. The freshman left having recorded just one out.
“For the first time all year, Todd just didn’t have it,” Mainieri said. “He’s done nothing but throw strikes for us since the time he got here, but this is a pretty unique environment for a young freshman. The next time he’ll be better.”
On came Newman, who froze Michael Davis on a curveball for the second out of the inning. However, Josh Jung hammered the first pitch he saw through the left side for the go-ahead single that would’ve gone down as a game-winner had LSU not rallied back again in the ninth.
The Tigers will be back in action with five games this week. LSU will host San Diego on Tuesday, travel to McNeese State on Wednesday and then host Wichita State for a three-game series set to begin Friday.