By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Cole Freeman got a text message from LSU coach Paul Mainieri Saturday morning. Unlike most of the messages the coach sends his players, this one wasn’t sent to a group.
“He said ‘Look, I need you to be the leader that you are and step up and just fly around and be big for us tonight,” Freeman recounted. “I responded ‘Yes Sir, I’ll get it done tonight.’ It’s kind of crazy how that worked out.”
The senior second baseman’s two-run triple in the fifth inning flip flopped a deficit into a lead and injected life into his team. Lefty Jared Poche’, another senior, fired seven gutsy innings of one-run ball and LSU defeated South Carolina 5-2 to even the series at Alex Box Stadium.
“It changed the whole attitude of the team,” Mainieri said of Freeman’s triple. “We hadn’t been getting any clutch hits. Cole stepped up and was the leader that he was. Came through with the big hit.”
The Tigers got the outing they desperately needed from their veteran southpaw. Poche’ hadn’t notched a quality start since March 31 and entered the game having pitched to a 6.32 ERA in seven Southeastern Conference starts.
He scattered three hits and danced around six walks, leaving the bases loaded twice and holding the Gamecocks hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position. Laboring at 81 pitches through four innings, Poche’ didn’t appear long for the ball game, but found a groove once he wiggled off the hook a couple times.
“That was vintage Poche’ there today,” Mainieri said. “He got in trouble a couple times early and pitched out of it. He only allowed the one run. And then he got stronger as the game went on. Ended up giving us seven innings of one-run baseball. Take that every night.”
The victory improves LSU to 31-16 overall and 14-9 in the SEC. The Gamecocks dropped to 27-18 overall and 11-12 in the SEC.
Early on it appeared LSU would squander Poche’s outing as it did Alex Lange’s complete game the night before.
Poche’ retired the six men he faced before finding himself in a bases-loaded jam in the third inning. The lefty screamed a four-letter expletive as he walked the bases loaded, but composed himself to freeze No. 3 hitter Carlos Cortes with a fastball on the outside corner to escape unharmed.
LSU had its own chance to score in the bottom of the inning. Greg Deichmann batted with runners on second and third with two outs. South Carolina right hander Adam Hill elected to go after the slugger, even with first base open, and struck him out on a high fastball.
South Carolina broke through in the fourth as Poche’ continued to battle his control. A leadoff double and two free passes re-loaded the bases, and the lefty walked No. 9 hitter Madison Stokes on five pitches to bring home the game’s first run. He did get a groundout to leave the bags full again.
“If somebody had told me I’d walk eight guys tonight, I’d have told the offense to get the sticks ready,” Poche’ said. “Fortunately for me, I was able to make pitches in those big situations and minimize the damage. Command was kind of in-and-out for me tonight.”
Those Houdini acts kept the Tigers within one until somebody, anybody could come through with a big hit.
Mike Papierski led off the fifth with a walk and Zach Watson followed with a single to center. After a failed sacrifice bunt attempt, Freeman laced one down the first base line to the right field corner for a two-run triple. Antoine Duplantis lifted a two-strike pitch to bring him home with a sacrifice fly.
Poche’ faced one batter above the minimum over the fifth and sixth innings, and LSU provided insurance in the bottom of the sixth. Watson came through with a two-out, two-run single to right center field that put LSU ahead by four.
Mainieri turned the game over to freshman setup man Zack Hess to begin the eighth inning. South Carolina got a run back against him, scoring on an RBI single from TJ Hopkins, but Hess froze Hunter Taylor on a big-breaking curveball to strand Hopkins at third base.
Veteran closer Hunter Newman came on to nail down his seventh save of the season. He allowed the tying run to come to the plate, but induced a 4-6-3 double play to end the game.
The series will be decided by a rubber match Sunday afternoon. First pitch is set for 2 p.m.
-First baseman Nick Coomes said after the game that he felt his shoulder pop out when he made a diving stop to the backhand side in the fifth inning. Trainer Cory Couture came out and popped the shoulder back into place, and Coomes stayed in the game. Coomes, who laid motionless on the ground when it happened, said it was more scary than painful.