By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The bottom of the lineup powered LSU to a dramatic, series-clinching victory on Friday night.
Mike Papierski and Zach Watson, LSU’s eighth and ninth hitters in the order, respectively, each clubbed two-run home runs off Auburn ace Keegan Thompson to lift LSU to a 5-3 victory at Alex Box Stadium.
Papierski’s long blast to right broke a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the seventh inning. It’s his fifth of the season after hitting all of four in all of his first two seasons as a Tiger, and his second game-winning hit in the past three SEC weekends, dating back to his go-ahead single in the 11th against Alabama.
“Papierski rose up and came through with a big one,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’m just so happy for that kid. He deserves all those good things because nobody works harder than he does. I think Papierski has improved this last part of the season … If Pap keeps getting hot, which he did at the end of last season, that’ll really help our offense.”
Watson, the reigning Southeaster Conference Freshman of the Week, went 3-for-3 and was in the middle of both of LSU’s early rallies. Together the pair finished a combined 4-for-5 with four RBI and three runs scored to shoulder the load on a night when LSU couldn’t muster much of anything else offensively.
For a while it appeared there’d be no need for such theatrics.
Jared Poche’, who received his degree Friday morning, departed in line for the win after scattering six hits and three walks over 6.2 gutsy innings of work. The senior southpaw left to a standing ovation with LSU holding a 3-1 lead and deserved better than a no-decision.
“It was definitely a special day for me and my family,” Poche’ said. “I got my piece of paper today, and as soon as that was over, I tried to lock back in. I kind of forgot I was wearing this SEC Graduate patch they gave me, but it was a special day. Tigers win and I got my diploma.”
That’s where things took a turn.
Zack Hess came on and induced a first-pitch chopper to third base that should’ve ended the inning. Instead Josh Smith threw low and it bounded past Nick Coomes at first base. A run came around from first to score on the error. Jonah Todd then tied the game with a sharp RBI single to left field.
The deflation of the crowd at Alex Box Stadium was palpable. That is, right up until Papierski’s long home run to right put the hosting Tigers back in front for good in the bottom of the frame. Poetically, it was Smith who worked a walk in front of him and scored the decisive run.
“It’s huge,” Papierski said. “Once they get runs, you’ve got to go out there and work your butt off to come right back at them. Smith made that throwing error, but he didn’t hang his head at all. I’ve got to give him credit. He’s really mature to go out that next at-bat and work a really good at-bat against one of the best pitchers in the SEC. Then I got a fastball and put a good swing on it.”
“He showed what kind of a winner he is and why I believe in him so much,” Mainieri added of Smith. “A lesser kid would’ve hung his head.”
Hess came back in the eighth and struck out two to get around a one-out single. He earned the win in relief. Closer Hunter Newman came on and nailed down his eighth save of the season with a relatively drama-free ninth inning, yielding just a two-out single.
With the victory LSU improves to 34-17 overall and 17-9 in the SEC. Auburn, now losers of six in a row, drops to 32-20 overall and 14-12 in the SEC.
Poche’ got around early trouble with help from his slick-fielding infield. Cole Freeman started a 4-6-3 double play to end the first inning. Smith began a 5-4-3 double play in the second and made a sliding backhanded stop and strong throw to end the inning.
LSU manufactured a run against Thompson in the third inning. Papierski drew a one-out walk and advanced to third base when Watson lined a sharp single past third base. Kramer Robertson brought Papierski home with a hit-and-run ground ball to second base.
Poche’ found himself in a first-and-third jam with one out after opening the fourth inning with consecutive walks. Papierski gunned down a would-be base stealer at second base for the second out and Freeman made a charging play a slow chopper over the mound to get Poche’ out of trouble.
Listless at the plate through the early innings, the Bayou Bengals built on their slim lead in the fifth. Beau Jordan fouled off four two-strike offerings before beating out an infield single. Two batters later, Watson crushed a hanging curveball for a two-out, two-run homer to left, his third of the season.
“I went up there looking for a curveball,” Watson said. “Second pitch he hung one inside.”
Auburn finally broke through against Poche’ after back-to-back singles to begin the sixth. Dylan Ingram lifted a sacrifice fly to score the Plainsmen’s first run of the weekend, but Poche’ got a tapper back to the mound to limit the damage and strand another runner in scoring position.
LSU will go for the sweep Saturday with Eric Walker set to take the mound against Auburn ace Casey Mize. First pitch is set for noon at the Box.