(Note to readers: This story has been updated with postgame quotes)
Welcome to facing Southeastern Conference pitching young Tigers.
Tenth-ranked LSU, which pounded a nation-leading 35 home runs in its first 18 games against non-conference foes, rarely hit the ball out of the infield in its SEC opener vs. No. 2 ranked Mississippi State Friday night in Alex Box Stadium.
The Tigers managed just a run and three hits – a bunt single, a misplayed pop-up single and an RBI double – off MSU starting pitcher Christian MacLeod as the Bulldogs chilled LSU’s previously hot bats in a 6-1 win.
MacLeod struck out six different Tigers nine times in his six innings, four of the strikeouts by the first three hitters in the LSU batting order who also entered the night sporting the team’s best three batting averages.
“SEC baseball, especially when we start getting into it, it’s a different animal,” said LSU junior left fielder Gavin Dugas, who had the Tigers’ only RBI and was just one of two LSU starters that played in an SEC game. “In my experience in SEC baseball, it really comes down clutch hits, good defense. And the end of the day, we’re capable of playing against anybody in the country.”
LSU (15-4 overall, 0-1 SEC) ended up with four hits off just two MSU pitchers, including reliever Brandon Smith who allowed an eighth inning single and struck out three in three innings of work. While the Tigers had a built-in excuse that seven of position starters – four sophomores and three freshmen – had never played in an SEC game because the 2020 season was canceled by COVID-19 before league play, it didn’t hold water.
MSU’s two key players in the win – freshman MacLeod and sophomore left fielder Brayland Skinner who was 4-for-4 including a two-run homer in the fifth gave the Bulldogs (15-3, 12-0 SEC) their first lead of the game – were also playing their first SEC games.
MacLeod was making his fifth college start. Skinner, who entered the game with just one hit in three at-bats, also made his first start of the season after missing 10 games because he broke his hand in the preseason.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri was absolutely stunned that Skinner swung away on the first pitch he saw from LSU starter Jaden Hill in the fifth after MSU first baseman Josh Allen led off the inning with a double to the left field corner.
“This kid had three at-bats going into the game,” Mainieri said. “I thought he was going to be sacrifice bunting and Jaden laid one in there to let him sacrifice bunt. The kid hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
Did Hill think Skinner was going to sacrifice bunt?
“I didn’t think he was going to hit a home run,” Hill said.
“I was never going to bunt,” Skinner said.
It was the turning point, according to Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis.
“It (Skinner’s homer) kind of shocked the whole dugout,” Lemonis said. “But I think it really let us take a deep breath and we took the game from that point on.”
After LSU scored its lone run in the sixth inning when third baseman Cade Doughty’s two-out pop up fell untouched in shallow right field followed by Dugas’ run scoring double, MSU extended its lead to 3-1 in the seventh and to its final margin of victory with a three-run the eighth when it sent LSU’s Hill to the showers.
Hill (2-2) lasted 7.1 innings, gave up nine hits and was charged with allowing all of State’s runs. While he didn’t pitch terribly – the Bulldogs only held that two-run lead entering the eighth – Hill got no support from LSU’s offense.
“We didn’t hit well against really good pitching,” Mainieri said, “but I don’t feel like we played a poor game. The talent difference between (SEC) teams is so miniscule all the time, it’s not just us and Mississippi State, it’s everywhere. On a given day, the difference between winning and losing is a couple at-bats, a couple of plays, a couple of pitches. Credit Mississippi State’s pitching.”
The teams meet in game two Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with both starting pitches having not allowed an earned run this season. LSU will start junior right-hander Landon Marceaux (2-0, 0.00 ERA, 23 innings pitched, 3 walks, 32 strikeouts), MSU will first send to the mound sophomore right-hander Will Bednar (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 7 innings pitched, 0 walks, 14 strikeouts).