By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
It took patience, bruises and a little bit of luck, but LSU found a way to complete the sweep of its opening Southeastern Conference series on Sunday afternoon.
Freshman Eric Walker allowed three runs over six innings to win his SEC debut and LSU capitalized of 10 free passes — five walks and five hit batsmen — issued by Georgia pitching and four Bulldog errors to grind out an opportunistic 7-6 victory at Alex Box Stadium.
Leadoff man Kramer Robertson led the way offensively, reaching base safely in all five plate appearances and scoring four runs. The Tigers found some odd ways to score on an afternoon when it accumulated only seven hits.
“We did what we needed to do,” Robertson said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we did what we needed to do to win the game.”
The much-maligned LSU bullpen provided three innings of relatively effective relief to finish off the sweep. Matt Beck worked out of a bases loaded jam in the seventh with help from his defense and fired a clean eighth to set up Caleb Gilbert.
Gilbert allowed two singles and a double to begin the inning, cutting the lead to two and putting the tying runs in scoring position. Another run came home on a ground ball, but Gilbert fanned Georgia cleanup hitter Michael Curry with the tying run on third base to nail down his second save in as many days as LSU’s interim closer.
“Like I told my players at the end of the game, ‘Welcome to the SEC,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Nothing comes easy in this league. You earn everything you get, and the whole idea is to get the last out before the other team ties the game or takes the league. It was a grind today.”
LSU took the lead in the third inning. Robertson led off the inning with a single, and after an error, he moved to third base on a controversial double play. Antoine Duplantis beat the relay throw by a full step, replay showed, but was called out by first base umpire Ken Langford nonetheless.
That left the inning up to Greg Deichmann. Georgia continued to employ the dramatic overshift it used against the slugger all weekend while pitching him away, and Deichmann once again reached out and grounded a single through the vacated left side to put LSU ahead 1-0.
Walker had the game on cruise control heading into the fifth inning. But after one of his three hit batsman of the afternoon, Georgia No. 9 hitter Will Proctor took the rookie deep for a two-out, two-run home run to left field to put the Bulldogs ahead.
Thanks to a patient approach, LSU retook the lead in the bottom half of the inning without the virtue of a base hit.
Georgia right-hander Chase Adkins hit Robertson and issued back-to-back walks to Duplantis and Deichmann. He then walked Zach Watson with the bases loaded, forcing home the tying run. Two batters later, Josh Smith drew a bases-loaded walk to put LSU ahead 3-2.
Beau Jordan followed with an infield single to bring home another run. He scalded a ball that took a wicked hop and caught Georgia third baseman Aaron Schunk up high. Collapsed fell to the ground and briefly laid face down in the dirt before getting to his feet and remaining in the game.
Walker found himself in trouble again in the sixth, and a two-out single from Schunk brought the Bulldogs within a run and moved the tying run into scoring position. Walker, with his pitch count north of 100, came back with his eighth strikeout of the afternoon to get himself out of further trouble.
LSU quickly got the run back as Georgia reliever Tucker Bradley hit the first three batters in the LSU lineup to load the bases with nobody out. Deichmann lifted a sacrifice fly to left as Robertson came home to score his third run of the afternoon.
“It makes for kind of ugly baseball,” Mainieri said. “But a lot of credit goes to our players. They were very disciplined at the plate. They were very tough at the plate. Guys got hit a lot … I’m just glad nobody got hurt.”
The Tiger bullpen had control issues of its own in the seventh inning, and LSU was fortunate to get out of the inning with the lead still intact.
Zack Hess came on but got hooked after allowing a single and a walk. Beck relieved him and forced in a run with a bases-loaded hit by pitch. Michael Curry smashed a ball ticketed for left field, but Smith made a leaping snare moving to his left and underhand flipped the ball to second base to complete an inning-ending double play.
Georgia promptly allowed LSU to re-extend the lead thanks to more sloppy play in the field. A two-out throwing error brought Jordan home and kept the inning alive for Cole Freeman to slash an RBI single to right field. On the other hand, LSU finished error-free weekend with some pivotal defensive plays made along the way.
“Sometimes the bats are there and the balls will fall, but sometimes they won’t,” Robertson said. “But if you can pitch and play defensive consistently, and make the clutch plays, you’re always going to give yourself a chance.”
LSU will be back in action against Southeastern on Wednesday before a road trip to Florida next weekend. Mainieri said he hadn’t made a decision on who’d start Wednesday night.