(This story has been updated after the post-game press conference)
Sometimes, the difference in winning and losing in SEC baseball is probably as simple as LSU starting pitcher Landon Marceux explaining why he and his teammates have suddenly won three of their last four league games after a 1-8 start.
“Timely (fielding) plays, timely hitting and timely pitching is what we’ve been focusing on,” said Marceaux, who delivered a career-high 12 strikeouts as the Tigers beat No. 5 ranked South Carolina 5-1 in Thursday night’s SEC series opener in Alex Box Stadium. “We’ve been getting it this weekend and last weekend (winning two of three at Kentucky).”
All the well-timed elements led to LSU improving to 21-12 overall and 4-9 in the SEC and causing LSU coach Paul Mainieri to happily open his post-game press conference by declaring, “Gosh, I just thought we played a great game, a great team effort by everybody. Obviously, the leader of the night was Landon Marceux.
“He was an ace in every sense of the word. He got big outs when he needed them, he pitched unbelievably courageously. He put the whole team on his shoulders, and the whole team played great behind him.”
Marceaux (4-3) allowed just three hits in seven scoreless innings with one walk. He threw 107 pitches, 70 for strikes. He had four inning-ending strikeouts and four innings with multiple strikeouts. Six strikeouts ended with Carolina batters swinging at curve balls diving in the dirt.
“We stayed out of the middle of the plate, these guys (South Carolina) live and die with the home run ball.” Marceaux explained of his pitch location strategy. “We mixed the changeup and the slider, commanded the fast ball on both sides of the plate. I did my job as a pitcher.”
LSU managed just eight hits off three South Carolina pitchers, but three of the hits were of the run-producing extra-bases variety including left fielder Gavin Dugas’ two-run homer in the first, right fielder Dylan Crews’ RBI double in the seventh and designated hitter Cade Beloso’s solo homer in the eighth.
“We’re growing and learning and getting better every game,” Dugas said. “You can see a lot of freshmen and other younger guys in the lineup are getting more comfortable in the league facing this pitching.”
It also has certainly been a boost that Beloso, a junior and the Tigers’ most experienced player, finally seems to be shaking a batting slump that haunted him until last week when he batted .545 (6-for-11) in four games with one double, seven RBI and three runs scored and raised his batting average 38 points from .202 to .240. In LSU’s series victory at Kentucky, Beloso batted .500 (5-for-10) with one double, seven RBI and two runs scored.
When he launched his eighth inning homer vs. the Gamecocks, the only person who may have been as happy as Beloso was Mainieri.
“I’ve been holding my breath waiting for him to return to what we know he can do,” Mainieri said. “I hurt for the kid because I knew how much it means to him and how badly he wanted to do well.”
Beloso’s homer came after brilliant fielding plays by LSU freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson saved three runs in the sixth and seventh innings, allowing Marceaux to escape with no runs allowed.
South Carolina had runners at second and third bases in the sixth with one out when Marceaux struck out Gamecocks’ cleanup hitter Wes Clarke, Then, Thompson made a diving grab of USC right fielder Andrew Eyster’s ground ball almost behind second base and gunned him out on a one-hop throw picked cleanly by LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan.
“I was just doing what I can to save runs,” Thompson said.
Then, South Carolina led off its seventh when first baseman David Mendham drilled a 2-2 Marceaux pitch off the base of right-center field wall.
But after Marceaux struck out catcher Colin Burgess, LSU’s Thompson fielded a grounder from USC’s Brendan Milone and threw out Mendham at home plate for the second out. Marceaux ended his night by striking out Gamecocks’ second baseman Braylen Wimmer.
Thompson said he told third baseman Cade Doughty just prior to fielding Milone’s sharp grounder and gunning the ball to fired-up LSU catcher Hayden Travinski that he was going to throw to home plate to prevent the run if the ball was hit hard to him.
“I’ve had one shortstop (Alex Bregman) in my 39 years of coaching with the infield back conceding the run still having enough confidence in himself to field the ball and throw it home to nail the runner,” Mainieri said of Thompson’s throw. “You don’t make that play unless you have unbelievable confidence in yourself.”
Mainieri is hoping Friday night’s game 2 set for a 7 p.m. start will be played, but weather predictions call for an 80 percent chance of rain with half an inch of rain expected. If Friday’s game is postponed, SEC rules call for the teams to play a doubleheader Saturday with two seven-inning games.
Whenever the last two games of the series are played, LSU’s game two starting pitcher is junior AJ Labas (2-0, 3.43 ERA, 44.2 innings pitched, 46 strikeouts, 8 walks) and the game three starter will likely be freshman Blake Money (1-1, 6.04 ERA, 22.1 innings pitched, 25 strikeouts, 6 walks).