LSU repeats late-game fortitude, beats Auburn again to win its SEC road series

LSU shortstop Jordan Thompson's two-run homer in the ninth inning Friday night sparked the Tigers to an SEC-series clinching 9-6 victory at Auburn.

For the second straight night. . .

Let those words marinate a bit because it’s been a season-long struggle for LSU’s relatively young baseball team to learn to perform consistently in the ultra-competitive snakepit known as the Southeastern Conference.

Yet, as the Tigers captured a fight-to-the-finish 9-6 victory at Auburn Friday night to win their third SEC series of the season, they followed the blueprint that gave them an 8-3 decision in Thursday’s series opener.

LSU (29-17 overall, 9-14) scored six runs in the final three innings Friday, four runs in the last two innings Thursday and added a combined six innings of relief pitching down the stretch both nights that allowed just two hits and one run.

“It was huge tonight for our pitchers to keep us in a game like that so we had a chance offensively to break the game open,” said LSU freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson, whose two-run ninth inning homer provided the final margin of victory and gave Tigers’ reliever Devin Fontenot breathing room to close out 2.2 innings and 45 pitches of scoreless and hitless mound work.

“I feel like we’ve been improving each passing game, each passing weekend,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Sometimes, the results don’t show it. We’ve been competing really hard and a little thing here and there has kept us from showing a better record.”

There was an immediate hint Friday’s second game of the series was going to be a wild ride. LSU’s 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning disappeared in the bottom of the inning when Tigers’ starting pitcher AJ Labas served up solo homers to Auburn first baseman Tyler Miller and right fielder Steve Williams.

Despite Labas’ second straight shaky outing – he gave up four homers and three doubles among the nine hits and five runs he allowed – LSU somehow wouldn’t go away in a game that had three ties and three lead changes.

Aside from the sporadic bombs he allowed, Labas pitched well enough in streaks for Auburn not to blow the game open. AU led 3-2 after three innings, LSU tied it at 3-3 in the fifth, Auburn jumped up 5-3 in the sixth before LSU pieced together a three-run seventh for a 6-5 edge that AU tied 6-6 in the bottom of the seventh.

Game momentum swung on two crazy plays in the eighth inning.

LSU scratched out a run when junior second baseman Drew Bianco led off with a single, stole second base and advanced to third on a sacrifice fly by freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan.

Then, freshman right fielder Dylan Crews – LSU’s best hitter – struck out swinging on a vicious breaking pitch by reliever Cody Greenhill that dove in the dirt and somehow scooted under catcher Ryan Dyal who thought he had the pitch blocked.

Bianco raced home for a 7-6 lead but Auburn had the tying run at second base in the form of shortstop Ryan Bliss with two out in the bottom of eighth when third baseman Rankin Woley stepped to the plate.

Mainieri called time for a mound visit with Fontenot and the entire Tigers’ infield.

“I just wanted Devin to focus on the hitter and not the runner Bliss,” Mainieri said. “But I wanted to get everybody together to put something in Bliss’ head that we might be putting on a play. I wanted to give him something to think about.”

Woley cracked a sharp grounder on a 2-2 pitch to Fontenot’s left. He managed to get his leg out. The ball ricocheted off his calf into the hands of Bianco who gunned Woley out at first to end the threat.

“I remember sticking my foot out and then watching the ball going to Drew thinking he could make the play,” Fontenot said.

Thompson’s clutch ninth-inning two-run shot was LSU’s first home run of the series after Auburn had already hit six.

“We kept battling,” said Auburn coach Butch Thompson whose team fell to 19-23 overall and 5-18 in the SEC. “We give up two, we come back and get two. That’s not been our challenge. This has been one of the best offensive efforts we’ve had.”

With the series finale on tap Saturday for a 2 p.m. start, LSU has yet to sweep a series this season. Mainieri is hoping senior Ma’Khail Hilliard can repeat his performance from last Sunday as the Tigers’ game three starter in a 5-4 win over No. 1 Arkansas.

The oft-injured Hilliard gave up a run and two hits in five innings to earn his first SEC win since May 18, 2018. That’s when he recorded a 6-2 win at Auburn and outdueled AU pitcher Casey Mize who was the No. 1 selection in the 2018 MLB draft. Hilliard allowed two runs and struck out seven batters in 7.1 innings.

“Hopefully, he (Hilliard) will give us another performance like he did a couple of years back,” Mainieri said.

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