By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Well, it certainly wasn’t how Paul Mainieri drew it up, but LSU managed to out-slug its own comedy of errors and advance to the winner’s bracket of the Baton Rouge Regional.
Zach Watson homered twice, becoming the first LSU player to do so since Ryan Schimpf in 2008. The freshman went back-to-back with Mike Papierski to help the home team pull away with four runs in the seventh inning.
Those bottom two hitters in the lineup drove in four runs each and scored twice apiece to help LSU overcome five unsightly errors and defeat Texas Southern 15-7 in come-from behind fashion on Friday afternoon at Alex Box Stadium.
“We’re just glad this game is over,” Papierski said, a succinct summary of the entire team’s feelings.
It’s not the first NCAA Tournament opener to get weird, but it might’ve been the ugliest.
Top-seeded LSU scored four times in the second, fifth and seventh innings to avert a potential disaster against the fourth-seeded SWAC champions. The hosts hadn’t scored 15 runs in an NCAA Tournament game since 2011.
They’ll face the winner of Southeastern/Rice on Saturday night once Texas Southern plays the loser in an elimination game.
Uncharacteristically sloppy defense got the game off to an inauspicious start for the Bayou Bengals.
Two singles and a walk loaded the bases against LSU lefty Jared Poche’ with nobody out in the first inning. Christian Sanchez singled off Josh Smith’s glove for an RBI single and another run came home when Nick Coomes was charged an error for not covering first base.
Shaky defense cost LSU another run in the second inning. After two strikeouts, Smith airmailed a throw to first to put a runner in scoring position. Jose Camacho followed with an RBI single up the middle.
“It was just one thing after another,” Mainieri said. “It was like Murphy’s Law out there today.”
That’s when the home Tigers, able to time up soft-tossing lefty Anthony Martinez, roared into the lead with a bit of two-out thunder.
Papierski pulled an RBI single through the left side to put LSU on the board. Watson followed with a towering three-run blast to left, lifting a high, outside fastball into the left-field bleachers.
“Off the bat I didn’t think it was going,” Watson said. It required holding onto the bat through contact, a departure from his usual one-handed follow through. He added that LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs made the recommendation during batting practice.
Poche’ followed with the all-important shutdown inning, retiring the side in order with two strikeouts. LSU then tacked on another run when Greg Deichmann grounded an RBI single through the shift to score Cole Freeman, who led off with a triple that the center fielder effectively dropped.
The lefty appeared to find a groove and be well on his way to history, but Texas Southern retook the lead in stunning fashion in the fifth.
A Robertson error followed by successive singles brought the visitors to within a run. A walk loaded the bases, and a tailor-made double play ball five-holed Robertson to bring home two more runs. Antoine Duplantis booted it in left field for good measure.
“We escaped. We advanced,” an understandably relieved Robertson said. “We’re going to forget about this game and probably never talk about it again.”
That chased Poche’, victimized by five errors and a high pitch count, from the game. Caleb Gilbert came on and surrendered an RBI single to Horace LeBlanc.
Only one of the seven runs charged to Poche’ was earned. As a result he’ll have to wait and hope he gets another chance at picking up career victory No. 38 and tying Scott Schultz’s program record.
LSU responded with a four-run frame of its own to retake the lead in a chaotic stretch. Coomes blooped an RBI single in shallow right field to get LSU within a run. Beau Jordan tied the game with a sac fly to left. Smith followed with an opposite-field RBI double and Papierski lifted a sac fly to right.
Gilbert stabilized the game until LSU eventually pulled away. He allowed just two hits and struck out six over 2.2 innings of crucial relief to pick up a victory out of the bullpen.
Mainieri was able to pull him once LSU scored the four runs in the seventh. Jordan got plunked to begin the inning, and two batters later Papierski hooked his high-arching homer into the right-field seats. Watson followed with a laser down the left-field line to notch his first career multi-homer game.
Todd Peterson fired a 1-2-3 eighth inning and LSU scored two additional runs in the bottom of the frame, allowing Mainieri to save his two big bullpen arms in support of Alex Lange in the ‘marbles’ game Saturday.
“Somehow, someway we found a way to win the game,” Mainieri said. “That’s the important thing. I just want our players to forget about this game as quickly as possible.”