It’s easy to see why Vanderbilt is college baseball’s No. 1 baseball team.
It is fundamentally flawless. Its starting pitchers have total command, its fielders make every play look routine no matter the degree of difficulty and its hitters take advantage of almost every mistake made by an opposing pitcher.
And LSU? Not so much across the board.
The Alex Box Stadium scoreboard reflected as much on a windy, chilly Thursday night as the nation’s best Commodores battered the SEC’s worst Tigers 13-1 in the opener of a three-game series.
“They (Vanderbilt) were like sharks in the water,” said visibly dejected LSU coach Paul Mainieri afterwards. “When they smelled blood tonight they went for it. Unfortunately, we were the chum in the water.”
Vanderbilt junior pitcher Kumar Rocker, a projected top five major league draft choice, earned his seventh win of the season in seven starts, striking out eight and retiring 13 consecutive batters at one point.
The Commodores (21-3, 6-1 SEC) pounded three LSU pitchers including starting pitcher Landon Marceau for 17 hits, scoring in every inning but one in which Vandy’s leadoff hitter reached base.
Vanderbilt third baseman Jayson Gonzales, slotted last in the batting order went 3-for-3, one less than the four hits LSU managed for the night. All came off Rocker with Vandy reliever Sam Hiiboki holding LSU hitless and scoreless in the last three innings.
Meanwhile, LSU fell to 17-9 and 1-6 in the SEC, its worst start in league play since 1969.
With Marceaux and Rocker giving up a combined four earned runs (Marceaux one, Rocker three) in a combined 72 innings entering the game, it figured runs would be a premium at the start of the night.
Then, steady wind of 16 to 20 miles whipping toward home plate with gusts to 25 miles seemingly favoring pitchers also played havoc on outfielders.
Vanderbilt took a 1-0 lead in the third when right fielder Isaiah Thomas led off the Vandy third with a fading fly that LSU right fielder Dylan Crews misjudged while sprinting towards the right field foul line. The ball bounced off the heel of Crews’ glove and Thomas was credited with a triple.
“When I dove for it and dropped it, that was kind of the turning point,” Crews said. “I definitely should have caught that.”
That broke the ice for the Commodores.
They scored four runs in the fifth when Thomas led off getting hit by a Marceaux pitch. It was followed with an RBI single, a two-run double and a sacrifice fly RBI.
They scored four in the sixth when second baseman Parker Noland led off with a single. It was followed by an RBI bunt single, a run scored via a throwing error by LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan and a two-run double.
They scored two in the seventh when Noland led off the inning with a walk. It was followed two batters later with a single that scored two runs when no one for LSU was covering home plate after Morgan caught a relay throw with ample time to gun out the second runner who scored.
They scored two in the ninth off a throwing error by LSU reliever Jacob Hasty and an RBI single.
“We’ve really got to get some base runners on base and score some runs,” said Crews, whose RBI single in the sixth inning plated Morgan with LSU’s lone run to avoid the shutout. “It’s hard to defend 13 runs, but we’ve got to score some runs.”
It doesn’t get any easier in Friday’s 8 p.m. game two for the Tigers when they face Vandy starter Jack Leiter (6-0, 0.25 ERA, 36 innings pitched, 59 strikeouts 13 walks). Leiter has thrown 16 ⅔ consecutive no-hit innings, stretching across three starts and including his first 16 career innings against Southeastern Conference competition. He had a no-hitter two Saturdays ago against South Carolina and added seven more no-hit innings against Missouri last Saturday.
Meanwhile, Mainieri looks and sounds a little more miserable with each loss. His inexperienced starting lineup has one or no runs in four of its six SEC losses.
“There weren’t a lot of bright moments tonight,” Mainieri said. “It got sloppy there at the end. It was not a fun thing to watch. I’m very disappointed in what we represented out there.”