Maybe it was the gravity of the situation that LSU needed to win its SEC series over Alabama to keep alive its flickering NCAA tournament bid hopes.
Or maybe it was because it was Senior Day in Alex Box Stadium.
Whatever it was, the Tigers couldn’t have had a better start Sunday afternoon leading to their desired result.
Six of LSU’s first eight hits were for extra bases including three homers, starting senior pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard struck out five of the first six batters and the Tigers built an 8-3 fifth-inning lead enroute to a 13-5 series-deciding victory.
Starting with freshman right fielder Dylan Crews’ first-pitch double on LSU’s second at-bat of the game and ending with junior center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo’s second homer of the day in the eighth inning, the Tigers (32-19 overall, 11-16 SEC) pummeled six Alabama pitchers for 16 hits. This came after LSU had a combined 14 hits and seven runs in winning Friday (2-1) and losing Saturday (6-5).
“We started fast in all three games,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “but in the first two games we went stale in the middle innings. This game, we kept the pressure on the entire game. We hit early homers and it kind of sent a message that we were going to play the full nine innings.”
Five Tigers had multiple hits led by Crews, freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan and DiGiacomo with three each and four players had two or more RBIs topped by DiGiacomo’s four.
“We talk all the time that hitting is contagious,” DiGiacomo said. “We got started early and we really tried to focus on the middle innings. We knew those innings would be what it took to win this game and we did a good job of being relentless and not giving up.”
Alabama (29-19, 12-14) was in trouble from the jump. The Crimson Tide switched pitchers three times in the first three innings and LSU tagged each of them with a home run.
Sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty hit a two-run shot off Alabama starter Connor Prielipp in the first, junior second baseman Drew Bianco greeted Alabama reliever Hunter Ruth with a leadoff solo in the second and DiGiacomo launched a solo homer in the third off Tide reliever William Freeman.
“LSU took it to us today,” Alabama coach Brad Bohannon said. “The ballpark was playing offensive, and we just didn’t do a good enough job of getting ahead in the count and throwing our off-speed pitches for a strike.”
Eight LSU runs in the first three innings was nirvana for Hilliard, considering the miniscule offensive support the Tigers have given their Friday night starter Landon Marceaux for most of the SEC season.
Hillard (5-0) allowed four hits, struck out seven and walked one, making his exit after five innings with a five-run lead.
“Before the game, I was so locked in knowing this might be my last game playing at home,” Hilliard said. “Going forward, I feel like I have to go out there and pitch with a chip on my shoulder. I have something to prove every time I step on the mound.”
Plagued by arm problems the last two seasons after he was a freshman All-American in 2018, Hilliard is enjoying a late-season renaissance as is Bianco.
After putting his name in the transfer portal (at Mainieri’s suggestion) following last year’s COVID-19 shortened season, Bianco withdrew it after a week because of his love of LSU and his teammates.
This season, Bianco struggled in non-conference play, putting pressure on himself to be viable. But as SEC play progressed and he started to produce in spot starts at second base and center field, Mainieri thrust him into a role as the starting second baseman.
In his last nine games, Bianco is .320 (8-for-25) with two homers, six RBIs, 11 runs and two steals. He has been on base in 15 consecutive games.
“I’ve felt really relaxed at the plate, confidence is the main thing,” Bianco said. “I’m just having fun, enjoying the game, playing like I used to in high school.”
Not only did Bianco have a big offensive day Sunday vs. the Tide going 2 for 4 with three runs scored and his solo homer, he was a defensive wall with six assists on a variety of high degree of difficulty plays.