Hornets score twice in ninth to force rubber match
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Despite inheriting two runners in the seventh and dealing with a Greg Diechmann error to leadoff the eighth, freshman reliever Caleb Gilbert wiggled out of trouble to strand the tying and go-ahead runs on base and keep LSU’s one-run lead over Sacramento State in tact heading to the ninth.
Doing so a third time proved too tall a task for the rookie who’s quickly making a name for himself as Paul Mainieri’s go-to reliever.
Cole Freeman booted a routine grounder to begin the ninth inning, and after back-to-back singles from Chris Lewis and Kody Reynolds tied the game, Matt Smith lifted a sacrifice fly to center to score the winning run as Sacramento State (4-2) rallied past LSU (4-2), 5-4, to even the weekend series and set up a rubber match Sunday afternoon.
“I try to focus on the things that I can control, and the things that I can control are getting on the mound and filling up the zone and executing pitches that are called,” Gilbert (0-1) said. “I feel like I did that for the most part, but it wasn’t good enough.”
While the Hoover native got saddled with the loss and a blown save in the box score, any requisite blame for the defeat doesn’t.
LSU scored four times in the third inning to hand Alex Lange a 4-1 lead. But much like Wedneday’s 12-11 loss at Lamar, the bats were never able to drive in any tack-on runs to extend the lead.
The Tigers left eight men on base — four of which were in scoring position — and had another thrown out at home plate. They managed just four hits from the fourth inning on.
Paul Mainieri’s club finished the afternoon 4-for-17 with runners on base and 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
“Had them on the ropes, let them off, they stayed in the game, in fact they gained momentum from getting our hitter out,” Mainieri said. “We didn’t score and it allowed them to have life, stayed in the game and chipped away and eventually caught up with us.”
Asked if the struggles were a byproduct of his young lineup, the long-time coach didn’t mince words:
“It’s a product of a guy not coming through in the clutch for us,” he said. “It’s part of baseball. Their pitcher beat our hitter at a time when we needed our hitter to come through. It turned into a barn burner and we had a couple bad breaks at the end. Consequently, we suffered the consequences of it.”
Such things often don’t matter when Lange is on the mound. But, battling his own curveball command and an aggressive fastball-hunting lineup that tagged him for a home run and two ringing doubles, Lange gutted through five innings to turn a 4-3 lead over to his bullpen.
The All-American’s last inning was one of his strongest, coming back from a four-pitch leadoff walk to fan the 4-5-6 hitters in the Hornet lineup on successive breaking balls to close out a nine strikeout performance.
After the game the Tiger ace was his own toughest critic.
“I take full responsibility for this loss,” Lange said. “I thought Caleb Gilbert threw one heck of a game. He went out there and battled. This is on me. i’ve got to be better than that, and I take full responsibility because I fell like we played well enough to win this game. If I’d come through there, we’re not in that situation at the end of the game.”
If there was a bright spot in Saturday’s proceedings, it was the play of freshman outfielder Antoine Duplantis. Inserted into the No. 3 hole and challenged to be more ‘attacking’ at the plate, Duplantis went 4-for-5 with two doubles and both scored and drove in a run in that four-run third.
“I mean I don’t think anyone comes to the park thinking they’re going to get four hits,” Duplantis said. “It helps a lot to be aggressive at the plate and just swing harder and not let the pitchers dominate you. Swing the bat early in the counts and try to hit the ball hard and good things will happen.”
Mainieri went so far as to name the rookie his No. 3 hitter going forward.
“He’s our three-hole hitter, he’s our guy and he’s going to keep getting better,” he said. “He swung the bat well and he’s going to be a good one, that kid.”
He’ll bat third as LSU will turn to lefty John Valek III for Sunday’s rubber match. First pitch is scheudled for 1 p.m.
– Freeman left the game in pain after booting the ball in the ninth inning. “He just errored the ball. I don’t know what his injury status is. He got hit in the wrong place.” If you don’t know what that last part means, watch the replay or use your imagination.
– Gilbert, who threw 53 pitches in relief, said he didn’t feel tired in the ninth. Mainieri on the decision to stick with him: “He’s fun to watch and he just got a little bit tired there but he was still our best option … I thought he was still throwing good. We had extended him in the preseason to be a starting pitcher, he’s thrown upwards of 70 pitches. He was still good. Got a key strikeout there at the end to keep us in the game.”