It’s getting to the point where even the most trusted relievers in LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s bullpen can’t get the job done.
Zack Hess limited the damage to three solo home runs against an Arkansas lineup that leads the Southeastern Conference in most categories, outdueling unbeaten Hog ace Blaine Knight to a score of 4-3 before departing with the tying run aboard in the eighth inning.
Lefty Nick Bush, LSU’s de facto closer at this point, yielded successive RBI singles with two outs as Arkansas rallied for three runs in the eighth to stun LSU 5-4 in a back-and-forth series opener at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to you’ve got to get the job done in the last two-or-three innings of the ball game,” Mainieri said. “You give credit to Arkansas. Their batters came up there and came through with clutch hits when they had to. And we had our chances and we couldn’t come through.”
Those runs came home against LSU’s best starter and top reliever, but they don’t shoulder the entire blame. LSU was in position to tie the game with a productive out only to strike out for the second game in a row.
LSU managed to put the tying run on third base with one out in the ninth against an Arkansas bullpen missing its closer. Hogs reliever Jake Reindl, who’d just put the winning run on base via a walk that went to the backstop, struck out pinch hitter Nick Webre and Beau Jordan on three pitches apiece.
“I feel like it happens often, you know?” a dejected Jordan said afterword. “Come up in the last inning having a chance and just not getting it done. We came up a little short today and we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to win tomorrow.”
It’s a seventh loss in the last nine games for LSU (26-20, 10-12 SEC) and a missed opportunity to take a game from SEC West-leading Arkansas (33-13, 14-8 SEC) in which it carried a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning with seemingly all the momentum on their side.
The LSU bullpen has blown late leads in four of those games and have surrendered the go-ahead runs in the sixth inning or later in five of the seven defeats, yielding three-or-more runs in the decisive frame each time.
“It’s obviously frustrating,” Bush said. “It’s tough. These guys are good and all these SEC teams can swing the bat. We’ve got to do our job. We’ve got to do a better job of coming in and shutting it down at the end of the game. We have to do a better job than that.”
Arkansas took the lead on solo home runs from Eric Cole in the first inning and Grant Koch in the third, but LSU responded in the bottom half of both frames. Hess, who gave up three solo home runs on the night, felt confident that he was somehow tipping his pitches.
Daniel Cabrera battled Knight before lifting a sacrifice fly to center on the 13th pitch of an epic at-bat in the first inning. Jordan, who singled and scored that run, then tied the game again in the third with a towering solo shot to left. Antoine Duplantis followed with a double to right-center field and Austin Bain came through with an RBI single to put the Tigers ahead.
Hess settled into a groove after the Koch home run, retiring nine of the next 10 men he faced with five strikeouts, but ran into trouble in the sixth. A leadoff double from Cole that drove Jordan into the left-field wall, a single and a walk moved the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position with one out.
With the tying run 90 feet away, Hess got Evan Lee to strike out on a slider in the dirt. The next hitter lined a ball to left, and Jordan temporarily saved the game after an initial misstep in with a sprawling, bases-clearing-double-preventing grab.
Knight, who also settled in through the middle innings, issued back-to-back walks to begin the sixth inning. A 6-4-3 double play nearly crippled the rally, but Hunter Feduccia came through with a clutch two-out, two-strike knock to plate an insurance run. The four runs and eight hits were both season-highs against the right-hander.
That’s when the wheels came off.
Cole lead off the eighth inning with his second home run of the night against Hess. A Dominic Fletcher single chased the LSU ace from the game as he received a standing ovation from the paying customers having allowed just six hits while striking out eight.
“He felt he still had it. I felt he still had it,” Mainieri said. “I think they knew what was coming in that eighth inning, but Zack pitched great and I thought he deserved to win the ballgame.”
Bush took over and yielded a single to put the go-ahead run on base. A double play got him within an out of ending the inning, but Lee and Gates came up with back-to-back RBI singles to put the Hogs back in front 5-4.
Mainieri gathered the players in the locker room for a closed-door meeting following the final out, a departure from their normal on-field debrief. LSU will have to gather itself before game two on Saturday night with first pitch set for 7 p.m.
“Coach said in our meeting that somebody will step up tomorrow and come up big in those moments,” Jordan said.