HOOVER, Ala. — Life in the loser’s bracket is all about survive and advance. Do enough to make it to tomorrow, and worry about the rest then.
LSU blew a ninth inning lead because of a defensive gaffe, forcing a depleted pitching staff to navigate extra innings against a dangerous lineup, but the Tigers kept plugging along and eventually found a way to clinch at least one more sunrise at the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Daniel Cabrera smoked a single back up with middle to bring home the game-winning run in the top of the 12th inning and Todd Peterson, who pitched the final five innings, followed with a two-run double in his first at-bat since high school as LSU outlasted South Carolina in a 6-4 thriller at the Hoover Met on Thursday evening.
“When you said Todd Peterson, I thought I was supposed to stand up and cheer,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “The Legend of Todd Peterson was created today in Hoover, Alabama.”
Peterson played the hero for the second time in three nights. He would’ve settled for another ho-hum six-out save, but a rare misplay by Zach Watson in the ninth inning allowed South Carolina to tie things up and force extra innings.
Having nowhere else to turn, LSU coach Paul Mainieri rode with his closer, who used to be a starter, into extra innings. He then joined the lineup when Austin Bain, who pitched earlier, moved from designated hitter to first base.
Peterson entered the fifth spot in the order because LSU lost the designated hitter. Once Cabrera put the Tigers ahead in the 12th, Peterson grabbed a bat with men on the corners and two out. Mainieri would’ve been forced to pinch hit had South Carolina intentionally walked the bases loaded, but Gamecock coach Mark Kingston said his team had issued too many walks in the game to consider such a maneuver.
The plan then became to have Peterson stand in the box and take three strikes, but Mainieri could see the disappointment on his pitcher’s face. A South Carolina pitching change allowed Cabrera time to lobby — and embellish his hitting prowess a bit — and he was given permission to let it fly so long as he doesn’t get hurt. He grabbed Cabrera’s backup bat and hurried to the plate.
Peterson got a 1-2 fastball on the inner half of the plate, stepped way in the bucket and smoked the pitch off the base of the wall in left field. It probably would’ve gotten out of most SEC ballparks, but the ringing double was enough for fans to be chanting his name as he attempted to run the bases.
“To be honest, I hit it and I ran, I didn’t know it went that far,” Peterson said. “Figured I had nothing to lose because I’m a pitcher, so I might as well go up there and swing as hard as I can.
“Pitchers are athletes. I just want to put that out there.”
South Carolina, perhaps invested in the four-and-a-half hour game that started two hours behind schedule, didn’t go quietly into the early evening. The Gamecocks scored a run off Peterson and brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the 12th, but he picked up a strikeout to nail down the win.
Whatever happens going forward, LSU has seemingly punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament with another strong showing in Hoover. LSU will face the loser of Florida and Arkansas on Friday for a spot in the tournament semifinals.
“We were all in tonight, and we did that the other night against Mississippi State as well,” Mainieri said. “When we had to play on that Tuesday, it’s a long week, especially when we get thrown into that loser’s bracket. So we just put it out there and told the kids let’s win today.”
Thursday was never going to be easier, and LSU was in scramble mode from the start after starter AJ Labas felt a return of his shoulder soreness on Wednesday night, effectively scratching him for the rest of the tournament.
LSU manufactured an early lead for spot starter Caleb Gilbert with a fairly unorthodox two-out rally. Two walks sandwiched around a pop-up single loaded the bases, and Zach Watson beat out an infield chopper for an RBI single. A second run was promptly forced home on a balk.
Gilbert looked like his old self in the early going, allowing just one hit over the first three innings, but things unraveled quickly in the fourth.
South Carolina loaded the bases with nobody out and halved the lead with a well-struck sacrifice fly to left. That was all for Gilbert, who clearly wasn’t going to be given a long leash, and Austin Bain came on to get LSU out of the inning with the 2-1 advantage still intact.
Gamecock starter Adam Hill settled into a groove after walking five batters through the first two innings. Hill put the clamps down from the second inning on and kept South Carolina right in the thick of what turned into an unexpected pitching duel.
South Carolina began squaring up Bain in the sixth inning. Second baseman Justin Row tied the game with a towering solo homer to left field. The next two hitters took mighty swings at untying the score, but the cavernous Hoover Met held both long drives.
“I thought the ballpark played really big today,” Mainieri said. “They might have hit eight home runs if we played this game in Columbia, and we hit some long fly balls too.”
LSU appeared to take the lead for good in dramatic fashion in the eighth inning. Antoine Duplantis pulled off an acrobatic slide to avoid the catcher’s tag and touch the back edge of home plate on a sacrifice fly from Hunter Feduccia.
Initially called out on the field, a video review showed Duplantis actually contorted himself around the catcher’s tag while still reaching back to glance the edge of the plate. Umpires reviewed the call twice before the run was hung on the scoreboard.
“I knew we were trying to be aggressive because it was late in the game,” Duplantis said. “The ball beat me by a lot, but I just remember last year (in the SEC Tournament Championship Game) against Arkansas the same thing happened, so I just tried to hook around him and dodge it the best I could.”
That lead seemed decisive with Peterson coming on for his second six-out save of the tournament, but Watson misplayed a bullet to center off the bat of LT Tolbert into a leadoff triple in the ninth inning. Jacob Olson tied the game and forced extras with an RBI single up the middle.
It’ll technically go down as a blown save on Peterson’s ledger, but he was lights out for every minute once he entered the game. LSU’s tracking technology clocked his fastball at 96 mph in the final inning of the game, a feat of endurance that had so eluded him as a starting pitcher. He scattered four hits and struck out three in the five innings.
As for who’ll do the pitching Friday, when LSU is set to face an even more daunting foe, don’t ask Mainieri. That’s a problem he’s not going to worry about until tomorrow rolls around.