The margins in Southeastern Conference games tend to be razor thin, so no matter how good the starting pitching is, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to which crew of relievers can get the job done.
For two guys relatively new to high-leverage roles, the back end of the LSU bullpen came through with flying colors on opening night of the second season.
Zack Hess took a three-hit shutout into the seventh inning of a game that LSU led throughout, but it was the bullpen that came on and fired three scoreless innings in order for LSU to hold on to 4-2 win over Missouri at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night.
“It’s nice to get the first one under our belt,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I think we made it a little bit more difficult than it had to be, but all in all it was a good win.”
LSU had its chances to break the game open early and late but couldn’t come through with enough big hits. They finished the game 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, stranding 11 men on base on a night that Missouri pitching handed out 10 walks, but the brilliance of two relievers made it stand up anyway.
Nick Bush inherited a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam from Hess in the seventh and managed to escape with a narrow one-run lead still intact. He popped up Missouri first baseman Kameron Miser with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.
“Phenomenal,” Hess said. “For Bush to come into that situation that I put him in and preserve the lead the way that he did, that’s phenomenal on his part. You’ve got to credit this win in part to his efforts.”
Bush worked a clean eighth inning, and after 10 hitless at-bats with men in scoring position, LSU finally got a clutch hit to provide some breathing room. Zach Watson came through with a two-out double in to plate a much-needed insurance run.
That set the stage for Austin Bain’s second save attempt. Missouri greeted him with a leadoff single, but Bain blew away the next two hitters and induced a ground ball to slam the door shut.
“Bain was awesome again in the ninth inning,” Mainieri said. “He’s got swagger in everything he does right now. He’s my idol.”
Freshman shortstop made a slick play moving to his left and a strong throw on to first for the final out. Before the late-game theatrics, LSU (13-6, 1-0 SEC) seemed well on its way to a relatively stress free-win behind Hess and another fast start offensively.
“This is SEC baseball,” Mainieri said. “You’re going to have one-run and two-run games all the time, so you better have the poise and composure to handle it. And I thought (Hughes) made a terrific play there against a speedy runner to end the game.”
A wildly erratic start from Missouri ace Bryce Montes De Oca allowed LSU to score in the first inning for an eighth consecutive game without registering a single hit. Montes De Oca began the game with 12 consecutive balls to load the bases.
Bain put the Bayou Bengals ahead with a ground ball on the infield to bring home a run. Another walk re-loaded the bases, and after a strikeout, Chris Reid walked to force home a second run.
Missouri (14-4, 0-1 SEC) had a chance to pull even as Hess dealt with some control issues of his own in the third inning, walking the bases loaded with two outs. The big right-hander composed himself after a visit from Alan Dunn and froze Missouri cleanup hitter Brian Shaw on a nasty slider to end the threat.
Montes De Oca settled in after the first inning, but LSU tacked on another run in the third. Beau Jordan cheated on a 94 mph and launched a solo homer clear over the bleachers. His fourth of the year — tying his 2017 season total — carried an estimated 413 feet.
“I was sitting dead red fastball on that,” Jordan said. “I kind of knew he was about to throw it.”
Hess, who at one point retired nine in a row, appeared to run out of gas in the seventh inning. He walked the bases loaded before being hooked in favor of Bush. Hess walked five on the night, one off his career-high, and struck out eight.
LSU got a golden opportunity to get at least one of those runs back in the bottom of the inning but squandered it. Brandt Broussard led off the frame with a triple to left-center field but the heart of the order couldn’t bring him home. LSU also left the bases loaded twice on the night.
“When we have opportunities, we’ve got to be able to take more advantage of it,” Mainieri said.
That’s certainly true, but a win is a win, and now LSU gets two tries at taking the series victory. Mainieri will hand the ball to Caleb Gilbert (2-0, 4.29 ERA) on Saturday while Missouri counters with lefty Michael Plassmeyer (2-0, 2.88 ERA). First pitch is set for 6 p.m.