By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU is one win away from going back to a super regional.
The Tigers outhit another choppy start, overpowering an aggressive, fired-up Southeastern club to move into the Baton Rouge Regional Finals by virtue of a 11-6 victory at Alex Box Stadium late Saturday night.
Top-seed LSU has scored double-digit runs in seven of its last eight games over the course of its 13-game winning streak. They’ll face the winner of No. 2 Southeastern/No. 3 Rice on Sunday night with two chances to get one victory and advance.
“I thought our team really played outstanding tonight,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “After yesterday afternoon, I just thought that that was such an aberration. Tonight we came out and played a terrific ball game, but we were up against a really tough team.”
Zach Watson, moved up into the five hole in the lineup, belted two more home runs, raising his total to four in in two days. His first broke a 5-5 tie in the fifth inning and his second, a two-run moonshot one inning later, extended the LSU lead to 10-5.
The freshman is the first LSU player to hit four homers in a regional since Zeph Zinsman back in 2001. It took Zinsman four games while Watson has done so having played just two.
“By the time he’s finished here, people who follow LSU baseball will talk about Zach Watson for a long time,” Mainieri said.
Kramer Robertson, 0-for-5 with two errors the day before, went 4-for-4 and scored twice to catalyze the offense from the leadoff spot. Josh Smith also homered and Cole Freeman drove in a pair of runs as LSU hammered out 12 hits in another balanced, top-to-bottom effort at the plate.
Their efforts made a winner of LSU ace Alex Lange, who persevered through an ultra-rocky start to turn in six gutsy innings. Tagged for five early runs, the right hander held the Lions to two hits over his final four frames. There was no duel of the aces.
Lange battled command issues from the start, though his only walk issued was of the intentional variety. He often fell behind in the count and didn’t find his put-away curveball until the latter innings of his outing.
“You just gut it out. Make it happen,” Lange said. “It wasn’t like a big thing mechanically that I changed. The only mindset I had was let’s pitch to contact and go as deep into this game as I can go.”
It was another inauspicious start for LSU. Ryan Byers popped up Lange’s first pitch in foul territory only to see the ball drop harmlessly behind first baseman Jake Slaughter, starting for the injured Nick Coomes. Byers proceeded to belt a leadoff home run to left-center field.
That lead wouldn’t last long.
LSU exploded for four runs in the first inning against Lions ace Mac Sceroler. Robertson drew a leadoff walk and Freeman singled him home. Greg Deichmann then rolled an RBI single through an infield shift. Two batters later, Josh Smith blasted a two-run home run, his fourth of the season.
“I hit the weights, I guess,” Smith smiled, referencing his many fly outs to the warning track this season.
Undeterred by the raucous atmosphere, Southeastern roared back with its own four-run frame. The Lions tagged Lange for five singles, stole three bases and scored twice on a double suicide squeeze to retake the lead, 5-4.
Before Saturday the ace hadn’t allowed five runs in a game since March 17 against Georgia, a span of 10 starts.
Lange managed to stop the bleeding and LSU tied the game in the third. Watson led off with a single and stole second, moving to third on an errant throw. Beau Jordan then laced the game-tying single into left field.
LSU chased Sceroler in the fifth inning having allowed a season-high eight earned runs. After Watson’s first blast, Robertson sliced an RBI single the other way and Freeman brought home a run with a ground ball.
“We have a veteran team,” Robertson said. “We’re calm. We never panic and we understand what we do well. So when another team scores and gets the momentum, it’s a key focus of ours to respond, whether its one run or five. At least stop the bleeding and get some life in your dugout.”
Southeastern star Taylor Schwarner clubbed a solo home run off LSU reliever Zack Hess in the seventh, but Robertson manufactured a run to match it. He led off with a single, moved to second on an error, third on a ground ball and scored on a passed ball.
Hess struck out four over two innings of relief, yielding only the Schwarner blast. Closer Hunter Newman came on and worked an uneventful ninth to tie a bow on the result. Mainieri said both Hess and Newman will be available Sunday if there’s a lead to nail down.
“It gives you a great advantage knowing you only have to win one more game in how you manage your staff and so fourth,” Mainieri said.