Paul Mainieri was still the head coach at Notre Dame the last time LSU lost on Opening Day. It’s bound to happen again sometime, because that’s baseball, and these things happen.
But it wasn’t about to happen against the Fighting Irish on this particular night. Two dramatic home runs and a sterling effort from LSU’s oft-questioned relief corps made sure of it.
Bryce Jordan, playing in his first game since the 2016 Super Regional, clubbed a grand slam to ignite a feverish comeback and Josh Smith belted a game-winning, three-run shot as LSU overcame a 6-0 deficit to defeat Notre Dame 7-6 on Friday night in front of a record-setting crowd at Alex Box Stadium.
Smith, who helped create the deficit with a pair of errors, came to the plate as the go-ahead run in the eighth inning after pinch hitter Chris Reid drew a clutch walk to extend the inning. He got a 1-1 cutter on the low-and-inside part of the plate, pulled his hands in and dropped the barrel of the bat on the ball.
Accustomed to the frustration of the “almost home run,” Smith stood in the batter’s box for a moment and watched the towering fly ball carry into the night. He wasn’t sure if it was going to get out, but he figured the ball would land in either a glove or the bleachers, so he waited. It disappeared into the patrons and the Box offered the kind of eruption typically reserved for postseason games.
“Thank God this isn’t last year,” Smith laughed. “That ball would’ve been caught at the warning track.”
Smith didn’t forget about the errors just because he played the hero, though. About an hour or so after the final out he emerged from the dugout with Jordan and a manager to take about 30 minutes of extra infield reps before calling it a night.
The comeback would not have been possible were it not for the work of two veterans working out of the LSU bullpen. The duo of Matt Beck and Austin Bain combined for 4.2 sterling innings of one-hit relief with nine strikeouts to keep LSU in the game and eventually nail down the win.
“I thought the key to the game was the quality relief pitching that they gave us,” Mainieri said. “They were both tremendous.”
With the win LSU has won 17 consecutive season openers, a streak that dates back to a 2001 season. The Tigers fell 9-8 that night against Kansas State in Skip Bertman’s final opening day as coach. It’s been nothing but 1-0 starts since then, but this one looked very much in doubt throughout.
Notre Dame, aided by some shoddy defense by the home team, shelled new LSU ace Caleb Gilbert for six runs (five earned) on nine hits in only 4.1 innings.
It’s only one start, but Gilbert’s velocity was down and he didn’t look nearly as sharp as the College World Series hero who yielded only two earned runs in his final 26.2 innings of last season.
Things started off sideways for LSU from the jump. A sharp leadoff single, stolen base and an error charged to Smith got the Fighting Irish on the board in first inning. LSU had a chance to answer right back but Jordan left the bases loaded — a missed opportunity he’d rectify a few innings later.
Defensive miscues dug the hole a bit deeper in the third inning. Nobody covered first base on a dribbler down the line, and after a hit batsman, a pass ball advanced both runners. Irish second baseman Nick Podkul promptly smoked a two-run single past third baseman Jake Slaughter to make it 3-0.
Notre Dame kept tacking on as LSU struggled to time up soft-tossing lefty Scott Tully. The senior retired 13 out of 15 Tigers at one point as Notre Dame chased Gilbert in the fifth.
The damage would’ve been worse were it not for some quality relief from right-hander Beck to stop the bleeding. He allowed just one hit and struck out a career-high five over 2.2 innings of scoreless relief.
That’s when the comeback began.
The rally, like so many others, began innocently enough with a leadoff walk. A sharp single and another walk followed to load the bases up for Jordan again. Tully left a 1-2 fastball belt high and Jordan eviscerated it into the left field bleachers for the first grand slam of his college career.
“I would have liked to see him hit that grand slam in the first inning,” Mainieri chuckled. “It would have saved me a lot of stress.”
Bain took over for Beck in the eighth and kept the deficit at two. A second Smith error led to a scoring chance, but the senior picked up back-to-back called strike threes to strand a pair of runners in scoring position and keep the comeback bid alive.
The bullpen’s absolute best work came in the biggest moments. Between them, Beck and Bain stranded five runners in scoring position from the fifth inning on.
“We’ve have some guys that can go out and really battle,” Bain said. “We have mentally tough people out of the pen.”
Smith’s go-ahead home run meant Bain had to switch mindsets from hold the line to slam to the door. He came back in the ninth and mowed down the side in order, doing his best Zack Hess impersonation with an emphatic after striking out the game’s final two batters.
“Throwing in front of this many people kind of fires you up,” Bain said. “It kind of turned into a blur at one point. I was trying to throw it by everybody; as hard as I can right through the catcher. That’s what I was doing.”
The Tigers will be right back at it on Saturday at 4 p.m. for the second game of the series. Zack Hess will make his return to the starting rotation as Notre Dame counters with freshman lefty Tommy Sheehan.