Conditions weren’t nearly as hitting friendly on a cold, damp night at Alex Box Stadium, but that didn’t deter LSU from jumping all over Tennessee in the early going for the second time in as many night.
LSU batted around in the first inning to score five runs in support of Ma’Khail Hilliard, which was as many runs as the Tigers had mustered in Hilliard’s last three starts combined.
The bats answered Paul Mainieri’s challenge to generate more offense behind Hilliard in his debut as No. 2 starter. The freshman struck out six over six solid innings and LSU clinched a series victory with a 14-5 win over the Volunteers on Saturday night.
“Hey, I’m glad Ma’Khail got a little run support,” Mainieri said. “If some of those runs were given to him in some of his other games, he might have a few more wins. But I thought he did a terrific job. The whole team did. It was a great team effort. Everybody contributed.”
“He deserves it,” right fielder Antoine Duplantis added. “He’s been pitching his butt off these past couple of weeks and we didn’t really give him much run support. It felt good to get him a win he deserves.”
LSU (23-13, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) moved to 10 games above .500 for the first time this season with the win and gives itself a chance to go for a rare SEC weekend sweep on Sunday afternoon.
Jake Slaughter again led the onslaught in what’s quickly becoming the best weekend of his collegiate career. Slaughter launched his third home run of the series through a howling wind — he had two all season coming into the weekend — and drove in a career-high four runs.
The third baseman has swung the hottest bat in a lineup full of guys putting together massive series. He’s got 4-for-9 with those three home runs — all of which have exceeded 104 mph off the bat, according to TrakMan readings — and six RBI.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into Jake Slaughter, but whatever it is, let’s keep doing it,” Mainieri smiled. “I didn’t think there was any chance that somebody would hit a home run to left field today, and that ball he hit, I didn’t know a human being could hit a ball that hard. Reminded me of someone like Giancarlo Stanton as hard as that ball was hit piercing through the wind.”
Slaughter and a late pinch-hit bomb from Nick Webre notwithstanding, there weren’t any of the prodigious big flies that highlighted Friday’s rout, but the runs counted all the same. An error, a bunt single and a balk put the rally in motion and Duplantis dunked an RBI single to left that got LSU on the board.
LSU did most of its damage with clutch two-out knocks. Daniel Cabrera pulled an RBI single through the right side and Slaughter plated two more after lining the first triple of his LSU career into the right-field corner.
Austin Bain, fresh off his career night, was in the middle of the action once again. Bain brought home a run with a swinging bunt in the first inning and another with a hard smash of a single up the middle.
“I love it,” Hilliard smiled. “You don’t really get games like that where your team just puts it on em in the first few innings, but that happened and I felt confident we’d get a win after that. I can relax on the mound knowing I’ve got a lot of insurance runs behind me and just grind it out. Throw it right down the middle and make them hit it.”
Hilliard sailed through the first four innings facing the minimum, but he ran into trouble in the fifth. Catcher Nico Mascia led off the inning with a wind-aided home run to right and No. 9 hitter Wyatt Stapp sliced a two-out, two-run double to right-center field that cut the LSU lead in half.
LSU promptly went out and got all three runs back in the bottom of the inning, which is exactly the kind of support Hilliard hasn’t got much of this season.
Nick Coomes led off with a double to right, and after an infield single, he scored on a well-executed squeeze laid down by Hal Hughes. Beau Jordan brought home another run with an infield chopper and Zach Watson re-extended the lead to six runs with an RBI infield single.
Newly-reassigned reliever Caleb Gilbert took over for Hilliard to begin the seventh inning. Tennessee loaded the bases thanks to a pair of errors charged to Coomes at first base, but Gilbert picked up a strikeout and induced a chopper to second to escape the jam unscathed.
LSU responded to the extinguished threat by hanging another crooked number on the scoreboard against the Tennessee (21-16, 5-9 SEC) bullpen. Coomes beat out an infield single ahead of Slaughter’s two-run blast and Duplantis capped the inning with a two-out, two-run single to right.
Freshman right-hander Devin Fontenot will start the series finale. Mainieri wasn’t sure how deep he can realistically go, but LSU has a well-rested bullpen set to go behind him. First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.