One start isn’t a referendum on whether or not Zack Hess belongs in the rotation for the long haul, but his ultra-rocky 2018 debut underscored the concerns of those who feel his talents would best be utilized at the back end of the bullpen.
The big right-hander struggled mightily with his control, ran up a massive pitch count early and ultimately got chased as Notre Dame batted around in a seven-run third inning.
Notre Dame tagged Hess for eight earned runs in just 2.1 innings to put the Tigers in a deep hole for the second consecutive day. LSU chipped away in the middle innings but never got closer than three runs as the Irish won 10-5 at Alex Box Stadium on Saturday night to set up a rubber match.
“I couldn’t get comfortable tonight,” Hess said. “We lost because I couldn’t get the job done the first few innings, so that one is on me. Our guys played well enough to win, so I’ve got to do a better job. That wasn’t a good job on my part. My stuff feels fine, but I’ve got to pitch in better counts and command the baseball better.”
Wild was the operative word the former lights-out closer in his return to the rotation.
He walked the bases loaded in the first inning, bloating his pitch count, and his stuff flattened out in the third. Eric Gilgenbach hit a missile of a two-run home run to left for the big blow of the frame. Hess walked six and struck out two.
That makes back-to-back rough starts for the one-two punch at the front end of LSU’s brand new rotation. Hess and Caleb Gilbert gave up a combined 14 runs (13 earned) on 14 hits with just two strikeouts in 6.2 innings.
“He struggled tonight,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It dug us a big hole. That’s two nights in a row we’ve gotten in a big hole, and tonight was just a little too much to dig out of. It looked like we were going to dig out of it, but we couldn’t get that one more big hit.
“You just can’t make a habit of digging a hole that big every game and expect to come out of it.”
LSU will send sophomore right-hander Todd Peterson to the bump on Sunday in hopes of reversing that trend and coming away with a series victory. Notre Dame will counter with its own sophomore right hander in Cameron Junker.
Better starting pitching only account for half the equation, though. The Tigers have also come out of the gate slow offensively in the early innings. Notre Dame has outscored LSU 14-4 in the first five innings of the two games and 11-1 in the first three.
So far LSU has only began one inning with a lead in this series, the ninth inning on Friday night.
“We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow and punch them in the mouth, because they think they’re better than us,” said Beau Jordan, who got LSU on the board with a solo home run in the second. “We’ve got to come out here and prove them wrong. They beat our butts the last two nights. We’ve got to come out and jump on them.”
Somewhat ironically, the Hess-less LSU bullpen once again gave the Tigers a chance to rally back again. Freshman right-hander Trent Vietmeier took over for Hess and fired 3.2 innings of two-hit ball with four strikeouts. Fellow rookie Ma’Khail Hilliard followed with two scoreless innings of his own.
Nick Coomes got them a bit closer and Brandt Broussard closed the gap with a two-run single in the fourth and a sacrifice fly in the sixth. LSU had chances to cut the deficit further, but couldn’t come up with the kind of game-changing blast it got the night before. Nick Webre came up as the tying run in the sixth inning but bounced out to first base to end the threat.
The Irish finally broke through in the ninth inning with two insurance runs. A somewhat-controversial no-call for running out of the baseline kept the inning alive, and second baseman Nick Podkul crushed a two-out, two run double to left off LSU freshman Devin Fontenot. That took the last of the wind out of LSU’s sails.