By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
HOOVER, Ala. — Caleb Gilbert gave LSU everything it could’ve possibly hoped for on short notice and then some.
Cole Freeman and the top third of the batting order took care of the rest.
Informed he’d be starting the afternoon prior, Gilbert held Missouri to one run on three hits over five innings. LSU supported him with four runs in both the third and eighth innings to open the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a decisive 10-3 victory at the Hoover Met on Wednesday evening.
Freeman led the way offensively, going 4-for-4 with four RBI and two runs scored, including the three-run home run that put the game on ice. The first three in the LSU order went a combined 8-for-13 with seven RBI and six runs scored.
Their cumulative efforts secured LSU’s 40th victory of the season and inched Paul Mainieri’s club closer to locking up a sixth consecutive national seed for next week’s NCAA Tournament. It’s also Mainieri’s 500th career win at LSU.
“I was disappointed that I had to use (Gilbert),” Mainieri said. “But he did a remarkable job once given the opportunity.”
With the win, the No. 2 seed Tigers advance to face No. 3 seed Kentucky on Wednesday night with a bye into the SEC Tournament Semifinals on the line. The loser will have to play its way in against whoever survives an elimination game between Missouri and South Carolina Wednesday.
It all started with Gilbert. The Hoover native, making the spot start for the suspended Todd Peterson, came out throwing 94-95 mph smoke in a 1-2-3 first inning.
The sophomore said his outing felt eerily similar to his previous SEC Tournament start, which came in the semi-finals last season against Florida. Thought he took the loss, Gilbert limited the Gators to one run in 5.1 innings in that short-notice spot start.
Missouri struck first as Kameron Misner took Gilbert deep to right field for a solo home run in the second inning. That’d be the only one they’d get against him.
That advantage would be short lived. It was once again he red-hot bottom of the order that came through to spark quite the rally against tough lefty TJ Sikkema in the bottom of the third.
“Really these last three weeks the story, at least for me, has been the bottom third of our order and what they’ve done,” Mainieri said. “It’s made us a really good, balanced offensive team.”
Mike Papierski worked a full count before drawing a leadoff walk. He then motored all the way home from first base to tie the game on Zach Watson’s double in the right-center field gap. Kramer Robertson then singled to left to set up runners on the corners with no outs.
Freeman lifted a sac fly to deep right field to put LSU ahead. Robertson alertly tagged on the deep fly ball and scored on an Antoine Duplantis single to right. Nick Coomes capped the four-run frame with a popup single that dropped between two defenders in shallow right field.
Meanwhile Gilbert, aided by pristine defense, pitched brilliantly after allowing the second-inning blast. He stranded men in scoring position in the second and third innings, thanks in part to Watson’s range in center, and fired a 1-2-3 shutdown inning after LSU’s four-run third.
“Their outfielders played phenomenally tonight,” Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. “If a couple balls get down, it could’ve been a different game. But that’s why they are who they are.”
LSU tacked on to the lead in the fifth inning with some well-executed small ball. Robertson drew a leadoff walk and Freeman laid down a bunt single, with both advancing when Sikkema threw the ball away. Duplantis then laid down a squeeze bunt that he beat out for an RBI single.
The Bayou Bengals tagged Sikkema for six runs (five earned) on eight hits in 4.1 innings. He entered the game with a 2.28 ERA and had held opponents to a .169 batting average, the lowest among qualifying SEC pitchers.
“He was very deceptive and obviously he had very good numbers,” Freeman said of Sikkema. “We took that on as a challenge.”
“I just hate that people saw TJ on the worst night of his college career,” Bieser said. “Tonight was the night that he didn’t have it. I wish that people on this stage could’ve had the chance to see the real TJ.”
Unfortunately, that’s when heavy rain once again besieged the Hoover Met. The delay lasted one hour and 21 minutes. Once play resumed, Coomes drove in his second run of the game with a ground ball to shortstop.
Lefty Nick Bush took over on the mound for LSU after the rain delay. He worked around a leadoff single in the sixth and induced a comebacker to the mound to strand men on the corners in the seventh.
Taking no chances — and perhaps feeling 40 wins would in fact sew up a national seed — Mainieri brought in setup man Zack Hess to pitch the eighth inning. Missouri brought home an unearned run, but Hess stranded two baserunners to hold the advantage at four.
LSU promptly went to work against the Missouri bullpen to get that run back and then some. Papierski and Watson each worked walks and Robertson smoked an RBI double off the wall in left field.
Freeman followed with his three-run bomb through the rain drops that carried the same wall and allowed closer Hunter Newman to sit down and take the rest of the night off and rest up for Kentucky. Matt Beck yielded a solo home run in the ninth but managed to get the 27th out without Newman having to get back up.
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