By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Leading 3-0 through eight innings, LSU was three outs away from a shutout and a series victory that’d put a week of offensive struggles squarely in the rear view mirror.
That’s when it all went wrong.
Texas A&M scored four times with two outs in the ninth inning against LSU closer Caleb Gilbert, taking the lead in stunning fashion on a three-run home run from Walker Pennington, who entered the game hitting .189.
LSU couldn’t recover from the devastating blow and dropped the rubber match, 4-3, on Saturday afternoon as Texas A&M clinched the series victory at Alex Box Stadium.
“That’s about as tough a loss as you can have,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said frankly.
The inning began innocently enough with a one-out walk and a single through the left side. Gilbert then struck out pinch hitter Landon Foster, bringing the Tigers within an out of a series victory.
Austin Bain sprinted to the bullpen before Hunter Coleman singled up the middle to extend the game and bring home Texas A&M’s first run, but Mainieri stuck with the closer who’d nailed down three saves in two Southeastern Conference weekends.
That set the stage for Pennington, who’d entered the game as a defensive replacement earlier. Gilbert missed over the middle of the plate with a 1-0 fastball and the senior clobbered it over the left-field bleachers in their entirety. Left fielder Antoine Duplantis barley gave the ball more than a courtesy chase because there was no doubt where it was headed.
“It was supposed to be out, and I just left it in to middle,” Gilbert said. “He did what he’s supposed to do with it. I’ve just got to be better at that stage of the game. I let my team down. I let my pitcher down … I didn’t do what I was supposed to do to secure the series. Obviously it’s a long season, so I’ve got to learn from it and move on from it, but obviously it hurts right now.”
The ninth-inning implosion watched the best start of Eric Walker’s young career. The rookie right-hander fired a career-high seven scoreless innings but would up with a no-decision all the same.
The rookie sailed into uncharted territory, the seventh inning, and retired the final seven Aggies he faced nonetheless. He sat down 16 out of 17 batters dating back to the second inning. Walker stifled Texas A&M to just three hits and struck out seven. appeared headed for his fourth win of the season.
He navigated some choppy waters early, but channeling his inner Jared Poche’, Walker worked into and out of trouble deftly before sharpening as the game went on.
Kramer Robertson saved him a run in the first inning with a diving stop on a ball smoked up the middle. Walker then wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the second, blowing a 3-2 fastball past Aggie leadoff hitter Nick Chorudy to end the inning.
Texas A&M right-hander Corbin Martin, a converted reliever with nasty stuff, came out of the gate like a buzz saw. He allowed just a walk through the first three innings, inducing six ground ball outs and two strikeouts to effectively keep the ball out of the strong wind blowing out to left field.
Martin left a fastball up in the fourth inning and paid dearly for it. Duplantis led off the fourth with a seeing-eye single up the middle, and Robertson cranked a letter-high offering over the bleachers in left-center field to put the Tigers ahead 2-0. His second home run in as many days carried an estimated 403 feet, accord to TrakMan.
Walker settled into a groove after escaping jams in the first two innings. It began a string of 10 consecutive Aggies retired that lasted until Chorudy’s two-out single in the fifth. He popped up Cole Bedford to win a lengthy battle and end the inning.
The Tigers tacked on to the lead thanks to heady base running. Beau Jordan drew his second leadoff walk of the game, moved to second on a pitch in the dirt and tagged up to advance on a fly ball to moderately deep left-center field. Zach Watson singled through a drawn in infield to bring him home.
LSU had only four hits all afternoon, but it felt like enough. A 3-0 deficit almost felt insurmountable given the way Walker cruised from the third inning on. Mainieri turned the lead over to his two-headed monster in the eighth inning for safe keeping.
Hunter Newman, making his second consecutive appearance since missing two weeks with a back injury, came on and worked a scoreless eighth inning. He allowed a single, but induced a 5-4-3 double play to avoid any real trouble.
Gilbert, who said he had no feel at all for his slider, couldn’t do the same.
“It’s just shocking,” Robertson said. “It hurts… You’re one out away. It’s never easy in this league, and to have it taken out from under you, it hurts a lot.”
Mainieri said afterward that he didn’t want to extend him any further pitching on back-to-back days coming back from an injury. LSU, now 19-10 overall and 5-4 in the SEC, will be back in action on Tuesday night to host Grambling at Alex Box Stadium.