LSU couldn’t have picked a worst time to have its least amount of hits this season in an SEC series opener.
Fighting for their NCAA tournament bid lives and still needing a win to qualify to play in next week’s SEC tournament, the Tigers managed just two hits Thursday night as host Texas A&M scored a 2-1 victory thanks to first baseman Will Frizzell’s game-winning eighth-inning solo home run.
From the get-go, the Tigers (32-21, 11-17) were handled by A&M starting pitcher Dustin Saenz. The left-handed Saenz was rarely in trouble except for the eighth inning when he escaped a bases loaded jam after LSU shortstop Jordan Thompson started a rally with a single that was the Tigers’ second hit of the night.
LSU right fielder Dylan Crews provided the Tigers with their only run and first hit of the game with a mammoth solo homer in the sixth inning for a 1-1 tie.
“He was attacking us and we just weren’t stringing any hits together,” said Crews of Saenz, who struck out eight, walked one and gave up both of the Tigers’ hits.
Combining Saenz with reliever Chandler Jozwiak who retired LSU in order in the ninth, the Tigers were 0 for 4 with runners on base, 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and 0 for 9 leading off innings.
“We cashed in early and our guy hit the big ball in the eighth inning to allow Dustin’s great performance to stand up tonight,” said A&M coach Rob Childress, whose team improved to 29-25 overall and 9-19 in the SEC. “I couldn’t be prouder of the way he pitched tonight, this was by far his best outing in the Maroon and White.”
LSU seemed to be fighting uphill most of the game, thanks to several injuries starting with reserve outfielder Mitchell Sanford pulling a groin muscle in pregame warmups. It ended up having a residual effect that connected in the oddest way.
It started when Tigers’ center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo strained a hamstring chasing A&M shortstop Kalae Harrison’s third-inning leadoff double to left-center field.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri didn’t have Sanford as an option to replace DiGiacomo, so he moved second baseman Drew Bianco to center field and replaced him at second with Collier Cranford.
On the very next at-bat, Aggies’ center fielder Ray Alejo bunted, LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan charged a few steps forward, Tigers’ starting pitcher Landon Marceaux fielded the ball and threw to Cranford who was covering first base. He couldn’t glove the throw, the ball got past him and Harrison scored from second for a 1-0 A&M lead.
Then in the A&M fifth, A&M right fielder Jordan Thompson belted a drive to left center that would have been at least a double off the wall and an RBI. But Bianco running to his right from centerfield made a diving catch just as he crossed paths with left fielder Gavin Dugas who was running to his left.
Bianco had the presence of mind to jump to his feet quickly and relay the ball to the infield to keep the runner from advancing.
Dugas, who was clipped on his right side by Bianco’s left shoe as Bianco dove past him, stayed on the ground for several minutes. Mainieri said Dugas’ parents took him to a local hospital in College Station for an MRI to check for broken ribs.
The last connection to the string of misfortune linked to Sanford’s groin pull is freshman Brody Drost, who took Dugas’ place in left field.
In the top of the eighth when the score was 1-1, it was Drost who struck out looking with the bases loaded to end LSU’s threat.
And as fate would have in the A&M half of the eighth, Frizzell sent LSU reliever Javen Coleman’s second pitch off the left-field scoreboard for the game-deciding run.
Coleman, a freshman lefty, pitched admirably (three hits and one run allowed, five strikeouts and one walk) considering he was thrown into an unexpected early appearance.
Starter Marceaux had given up just one run and three hits in the first four innings. But he had struck out only one batter, walked three and had thrown 60 pitches.
Mainieri felt Marceaux was struggling, so he asked him at the end of the fourth how he felt physically.
“Generally, Landon is very upbeat about how he feels,” Mainieri said. “He said his arm felt fine, but he felt like he had no energy. His body was fatigued. He was gassed for some reason.
“I was concerned about him injuring his arm because he was laboring so much, so I felt the best thing to do was take him out of the game. He didn’t argue with me.”
Marceaux said he agreed with Mainieri’s decision.
“Coming into today, my work week felt great,” Marceaux said. “But today, I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel real strong.”
In the other dugout, A&M starter Saenz, who entered the game 5-6 with a 4.60 ERA, had his team juiced.
“He kept the momentum in our dugout the whole game, never really letting the LSU hitters get going,” Frizzell said of Saenz. “That was the best I’ve ever seen him throw.”
Saenz and his teammates seemed to play with the urgency required of a team trying to rally just to qualify to play in next week’s SEC tournament.
“I wanted to set the tone like we were playing the game like it’s our last one for the season,” Saenz said. “Just getting after it and pounding the strike zone is what did the job.”
The teams meet again in game two Friday at 6:30 p.m. on SEC Network+. Texas A&M will start senior right-hander Bryce Miller (3-2, 3.98), but the Tigers haven’t declared a starting pitcher.
LSU usually starts AJ Labas in second games of an SEC series. But in 13.2 innings in Labas’ last three SEC starts against Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas, he has a 12.51 ERA after being shelled for 27 hits and 19 earned runs.