CORVALLIS, Ore. — The pressure grew palpable as an all-too-familiar script appeared to be playing out for LSU in its NCAA Tournament opener.
A changeup-throwing lefty had quieted the bats after a fast start and an early lead dissolved as golden scoring opportunities went by the wayside. After beginning the game 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, LSU desperately needed someone to step up and relieve the pressure.
Finally someone did, and the floodgates immediately opened. Jake Slaughter fought back from an 0-2 count and come through with an RBI single to beak a 3-3 tie in the sixth inning. Zach Watson and Antoine Duplantis followed with knocks of their own.
That three-run frame and three strong innings of relief from Devin Fontenot were the difference as LSU opened the Corvallis Regional with a 6-4 win over San Diego State on a pristine Friday afternoon at Goss Stadium.
“Clutch hits and clutch pitching is what wins games for you,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We got some clutch pitching and I thought Jake came through with just a tremendous at-bat.”
LSU now advances into the proverbial marbles game of the Corvallis Regional to play the winner of Oregon State and Northwestern State for a spot in the regional finals. First pitch of that game is set for 9 p.m. CT on Saturday.
Considering LSU’s pitching limitations, specifically having half its starting rotation out for the regional, a trek through the loser’s bracket would be akin to a suicide mission. Now LSU can hand the ball to a fully-rested Zack Hess in a probable matchup with the nationally-seeded hosts.
“If you don’t win the first two games, it creates such a hole for yourself and it tests the depth of your pitching staff so much,” Mainieri said. “So far we’ve got half the job done.”
The coach implored his team to start fast against an Aztec club built around a tough bullpen, and the Tigers did just that after loading the bases with nobody out in the second inning.
Hal Hughes and Brandt Broussard brought runners home on slowly-hit ground balls, the kind of productive outs LSU has struggled to make of late. San Diego State coach Make Martinez was upset after the game that his first baseman didn’t throw home on the swinging bunt off the bat of Hughes. Slaughter then scored on a wild pitch that went to the backstop to make it 3-0.
Lefty Nick Bush sailed through the early innings before running into trouble in the fourth. A lapse in command allowed San Diego State to load the bases with two outs and score on a wild pitch. Second baseman Jacob Maekawa then chopped a double down third base line that bounded off the bag for a game-tying double.
That allowed San Diego State to turn things over to its ace reliever, lefty Jacob Erickson, in a tie game. Bush got through five innings before turning things over to the LSU relief corps.
Erickson worked out of jams in the fourth and fifth innings, but LSU finally timed up his trusty changeup in the sixth. Nick Coomes led off with his third hit in as many at-bats and Slaughter smoked a 2-2 changeup back through the box for a two-out RBI single.
“I guess we were due to hit one of those guys eventually,” Coomes smiled.
Having seemingly broken the seal, Watson and Duplantis followed with run-scoring knocks against hard-throwing reliever Logan Boyer to extend the lead once Erickson was lifted from the game.
Fontenot allowed just a walk through his first two innings sandwiched around LSU’s three-run sixth. San Diego State chipped away with a run in the eighth via an RBI single from catcher Dean Nevarez, but Fontenot got a strikeout to keep the lead at two.
That effort from the freshman both held down San Diego State for three innings and saved most of the bullpen as LSU begins what has the potential to be a long weekend with two starting pitchers injured.
“That’s what we do on the pitching staff here at LSU, we just pick each other up,” Fontenot said. “Even though we have some guys injured, you have to go out there and give it your best to help the team win.”
“Devin was great,” Mainieri added. “I thought he was the key to the game. He came in for Nick and I felt like he took the bull by the horns, put the team on his shoulders and said, ‘We’re going to win this game., and I’m going to do the job.'”
Mainieri turned the game over to Todd Peterson for safe keeping in the ninth inning. He may have stuck with Fontetnot to close it out had his eighth inning been as sharp and economical as the two that preceded it, but a two-run time meant it was time to bring in the closer.
Peterson, working for the first time since achieving legendary status at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, nailed down the save with a 1-2-3 inning to punch LSU’s ticket into the winner’s bracket. He threw only 14 pitches, which means he’ll be ready to come back on Saturday if needed.