By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
HOOVER, Ala. — Only one ace lived up to his end of the bargain in what was billed as a late-night pitching duel in Hoover.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the one named the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year earlier this week.
Alex Lange fired an abbreviated complete game shutout while LSU piled up 10 runs on 11 hits against Sean Hjelle en route to a mercy-rule-ended 10-0 blowout of Kentucky Thursday night at the Hoover Met to secure a bye into the SEC Tournament Semifinals Saturday.
“Regardless of if it was Nolan Ryan or Joe Blow on the mound, we felt like we could hit anybody right now,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “We’re just confident as a ball club and we want to keep it rolling. This is the time you want to be playing your best baseball, and I feel like we’re almost there. Our best baseball is still in front of us, but it’s hard to top tonight.”
The Tigers hung five spots on Hjelle in both the second and fifth innings. All nine players in the starting lineup picked up at least one hit against him despite the right hander having what every LSU player characterized as far more electric stuff than the last time they saw him.
And who was the last guy in on the party? That’d be Robertson, who belted a three-run home run to left that capped the offensive onslaught against one the nation’s best arms.
It’s the latest outburst in a historic offensive streak for LSU. The Tigers have scored 10+ runs in four consecutive SEC games, the most by any LSU team since the 2000 club did it in five straight games.
On the flip side, Lange scattered six hits and struck out seven to blank a lineup that hadn’t been shut out all season. The Wildcats led the SEC in nearly every offensive category this season, but looked nothing like the murder’s row that hung 25 runs on LSU in a series victory in Lexington during the regular season.
“I love pitching here,” Lange said. “That’s a great team. I wanted to pitch against Kentucky. I didn’t have good stuff when we were there this season, but it was good to go out there and compete and I had a lot of fun.”
LSU jumped all over Hjelle in the second inning, taking full advantage of defensive miscues in the process. Of course, yet again, it was the bottom of the order got the rally started.
Beau Jordan reached on an infield single as no Wildcats covered first base on a chopper near the mound. Mike Papierski laces a sharp single through the left side and Zach Watson got plunked to load the bases.
Robertson then pulled a hard ground ball that bounded off third baseman Tyler Marshall’s glove to bring home the game’s first two runs. That started the hit parade as Cole Freeman, Antoine Duplantis and Greg Deichmann followed with RBI singles. Seven straight Tigers reached safely against Hjelle.
Staked to a lead, Lange kept rolling right along. He stranded two baserunners to post a shutdown inning after LSU’s five spot and struck out the side in the fifth to tie Ben McDonald for second place on the program’s all-time strikeout list. He blew away Riley Mahan in the sixth to surpass McDonald.
“Being mentioned in the same sentence as Ben McDonald is pretty humbling,” Lange said. “It’s pretty awesome. He is the guy that laid the ground work for everybody along with Skip Bertman, and to be considered with him is pretty cool. Ben has given me a lot of pointer in my time here. I’ve picked his brain. It’s a true honor. It really is.”
His outing was as much about efficiency as dominance. The righty deftly made use of the spacious confines of the Hoover Met and his speedy outfield. A handful of towering fly balls that would’ve been home runs were the game played in Lexington instead found LSU gloves just shy of the wall.
“They hit some balls hard against him early,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I thought the story of the game early was Zach Watson out there in center field. And I’m also glad we were playing in this ballpark instead of the ballpark in Lexington. They hit three balls that would’ve been home runs in their park but Zach was able to run them down.”
Hjelle retired eight men in a row — striking out six of them — after Deichmann’s single, but LSU went back on the offensive in the fifth.
Deichmann led off with a bullet the other way for a ground-rule double. Nick Coomes followed with an RBI single back up the middle. Josh Smith then doubled and Watson beat out an infield hit to set the stage for Robertson. He turned on a 2-0 fastball and took a moment to watch at it sailed into the night sky and over the fence in left for his seventh home run of the season.
“What we did was pretty special because that guy is legit,” Robertson said. “He’s good.”
With the win LSU advances to the single-elimination semifinals and puts a bow on its case to earn a sixth straight national seed. Kentucky will play South Carolina Friday with the winner moving on to face LSU at noon on Saturday.
But first LSU will celebrate and enjoy the hard-earned day off. Mainieri promised his team Dreamland Barbecue after a practice in the afternoon.