It couldn’t get hits when needed.
It couldn’t make the pitches when required.
And as a result, LSU and its baseball season are already in a world of hurt even before April Fool’s Day, which just happens to be Thursday when No. 1 Vanderbilt starts a three-game series in Alex Box Stadium
Host No. 11 Tennessee swept its SEC weekend series in Knoxville by scoring two walk-off one-run wins Sunday over the 22nd ranked Tigers.
First, LSU fell 9-8 in 11 innings to conclude Saturday’s second game that was stopped because of rain and lightning. The Vols followed with a 2-1 win in eight innings of a scheduled seven-inning series closer.
Saturday’s game two re-started Sunday with LSU leading 8-7 as it opened the ninth inning at the plate. The Tigers were one strike away in the bottom of the ninth from a one-run victory when freshman reliever Ty Floyd gave up a game-tying, two-strike, two-out RBI double to Tennessee clean-up hitter Drew Gilbert. Gilbert finished off the Tigers with a walk-off solo homer off LSU senior reliever Devin Fontenot in the 11th.
Then, with Tigers in the series finale trying to salvage at least one win, LSU was one strike away from extending the game another inning when Vols’ first baseman Luc Lipcius dumped a sinking two-out RBI walkoff single into center field.
The entire weekend left LSU (16-8, 1-5 SEC) and head coach Paul Mainieri reeling and Tennessee (21-4, 5-1) celebrating.
“This team is a little bit snake bit, we’re a pitch away or an at-bat away,” Mainieri said. “If we can just get over the hump a little bit, we can turn some of these close defeats into real victories. We’ve got to stay with it, it’s frustrating for the kids.”
What was LSU’s ultimate undoing, including in its 3-1 Friday night loss in the first game of the series, was a lack of timely Tigers’ hits and too many walks drawn by Tennessee.
LSU had 31 hits and batted .281 in the three games vs. the Vols, yet the Tigers left 26 runners on base and batted .200 (5 for 25) with runners in scoring position.
Also, LSU struck out 36 times, including at least one strikeout in 24 of 28 innings, two or more strikeouts in 11 innings and ended an inning with a strikeout nine times including five times with a runner in scoring position.
The Tigers’ pitching, from the three starters to the nine relievers, gave up 20 hits including 11 for extra bases (six doubles, one triple and four homers). Also while LSU struck out 30, it also walked 18 Vols and hit four batters.
The most costly walk of the weekend may have been Floyd issuing a one-out walk to Alabama designated hitter Christian Scott in the ninth inning of game two which re-started late Sunday morning.
Floyd entered the game in the eighth inning Saturday and used 14 pitches to retire the Vols. Though he was effective, it was thought Mainieri would open the re-start of the game Sunday with veteran closer Fontenot on the mound to nail down what would be a one-run win.
“It was between Fontenot and Floyd and I slept on it all (Saturday night),” Mainieri said. “I went with Floyd. The undoing was walking the batter.”
Two batters after the walk, Mainieri admitted he made a strategic mistake by deciding to pitch to Gilbert.
“The cardinal rule of baseball is you don’t (intentionally) walk the go-ahead run, but I regret not doing it with Gilbert, especially when you’re the visiting team,” Mainieri said. “I should have just put him on and taken our chances at trying to win the game with the next batter (Jordan Beck).
“But I was intimidated by the wind. The wind was such a factor today.”
The wind helped LSU designated hitter Cade Beleso hit a solo homer in the fifth inning of game three to cut Tennessee’s lead to 2-1. The Tigers tied it in the sixth at 2-2 on shortstop Jordan Thompson’s RBI single.
LSU freshman reliever Garrett Edwards replaced starter AJ Labas in the Tennessee eighth. A single, a groundout, a balk, two intentional walks later, Edwards needed just one more strike to wiggle out of the bases loaded jam.
But Lipcius lined a 2-2 pitch that nosedived just enough to prevent Tigers’ center fielder Will Safford from making a diving catch.
Instead, it became a walkoff RBI.
“It’s tough, but at the same time we’ve got to keep out heads up,” Labas said.
LSU hasn’t lost its first two SEC series in a season since 2011, which was the last time Mainieri and the Tigers failed to earn an NCAA tournament invite, Mainieri’s team is now trying avoid losing its first three SEC series to open league play, something that last happened in 2006 when Tigers’ coach Smoke Laval was fired two seasons after guiding LSU to the 2004 College World Series.
Mainieri still believes his current freshman-sophomore dominated team can follow the path of his first LSU squad to advance to the College World Series.
“It reminds me of our team in ’08 when we were losing some close games,” Mainieri said, “and I kept telling the guys were an at-bat away, a pitch away, a play away. Eventually, we started doing those things, we ended up having a good team and going to Omaha.”
At this point, that seems like extremely positive thinking.