Zack Hess, if only for a brief moment between the mound and the LSU dugout, was once again the borderline psychopath who electrified the College World Series last summer.
Mississippi State advanced the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position with two in the sixth inning of a 2-1 ball game. Hess froze pinch hitter Justin Foscue on a nasty slider and let out his most exaggerated fist pump and strut since Omaha.
Consider the tone set for a pivotal weekend.
“Hess gave us a chance,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He was magnificent tonight.”
Hess struck out 10 over 6.2 dominant innings, yielding just the one earned run on three hits before leaving to a standing ovation. LSU then broke the game open with seven two-out runs in the bottom of the seventh to rout its arch-rival 10-1 in the series opener at Alex Box Stadium on Thursday night.
“Playing at LSU is not for ordinary people,” Mainieri said. “You play at LSU if you want to do great things, and I challenged them to do great things. Tonight they did extraordinary stuff, and that’s why we were able to have a really good victory tonight.”
Bulldog ace Konnor Pilkington had nearly equaled Hess’ efforts through six innings, but a two-out double from Hal Hughes opened up the floodgates.
Zach Watson, who went 3-for-4 and scored three runs, came through with an RBI single. Antoine Duplantis followed with an RBI triple to center that chased Pilkington from the game and Austin Bain beat out an infield single to allow Duplantis to score.
LSU kept pouring it on against the underbelly of the Mississippi State bullpen. A hit batsman and an infield single loaded the bases and Beau Jordan lined an RBI single to right. Daniel Cabrera pulled a two-run single into right and Jake Slaughter capped the rally with an RBI single to left.
“That was great to break through and start piling them on,” Duplantis said. “Once we broke the seal, the pressure just feels like it’s a little bit lifted from us.”
The wild two-out rally removed any suspense out of what was a fantastic pitching duel for the first six innings. LSU (17-10, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) will have two chances to clinch a series victory.
Hess labored through the first inning after Mississippi State star Jake Mangum led off the game with a ringing double to right. Mississippi State advanced two runners into scoring position, but Hess pumped a 95 mph fastball by Josh Hatcher to escape unscathed.
The Bulldogs (13-14, 1-6 SEC) would come to regret letting Hess wiggle off that particular hook. Hess retired the next 11 batters he faced after the strikeout and got his pitch count under control after needing 25 to get through the first.
The Tigers got on the board thanks to a little stroke of good fortune when a seemingly harmless fly ball off the bat of Slaughter bounced off the glove of Mississippi State right fielder Hunter Vansau as he attempted a sliding catch near the LSU bullpen at Alex Box Stadium.
Given new life, Slaughter ripped the next offering from Pilkington into left field for the kind of two-out RBI single that had so avoided LSU in scoring just one run in two preceding losses.
“That really got it started,” Duplantis said.
LSU doubled its lead in the bottom of the third after making Pilkington throw 31 pitches in the second. Watson ambushed a 2-0 fastball and launched a solo home run over the big Tabasco bottle in left-center field. TrakMan measured the blast as carrying 426 feet.
Hess made that lead feel almost insurmountable through the middle innings before a leadoff walk to Mangum in the sixth opened the door for the Bulldogs. Hunter Stovall got Mississippi State on the board with an RBI double, but Hess got the big punchout that kept him from coming home.
“I’ve always felt like the strength of my career is the ability to rise up in big situations,” Hess said. “In that moment there I was able to do it.”
Mainieri hooked Hess for lefty John Kodros after a two-out walk allowed Mississippi State to turn its lineup over for Mangum in the seventh. He smoked a ball up the middle on a called hit-and-run, but Bain was in perfect position to field it as he moved to cover second base with the runner in motion.
Game two of the series is set for a 7 p.m. first pitch on Friday night. LSU will start Caleb Gilbert (3-1, 3.86 ERA) while Mississippi State counters with lefty Ethan Small (1-2, 2.73 ERA).
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