Ti-gahs finally crack the MSU pitching code, win Sunday to avoid a SEC series opening sweep

After a combined five hits and one run off five Mississippi State pitchers in two losses to open its 2021 SEC schedule, No. 10 ranked LSU finally found some Bulldogs’ arms it could hit.

The Tigers busted loose for six runs and five hits in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings to take an 8-3 series-finale win Sunday afternoon in Alex Box Stadium.

LSU (16-5, 1-2 SEC) was in a 2-2 tie after 5½ innings when MSU reliever Jackson Fristoe struck out freshman designated hitter Brody Drost and right fielder Dylan Crews to lead off the Tigers’ sixth.

That brought to the plate left fielder Gavin Dugas, who had gone hitless in his last 10 at-bats including two rally-killing grounders that ended LSU’s best scoring threats in its 3-0 Saturday night loss to the Bulldogs.

“You always want to be the guy that can turn that switch for the team,” said Dugas, who belted an 0-1 Fristoe pitch into the left-field bleachers for a solo homer and a 3-2 lead.

“His (Dugas) home run was a huge confidence boost for our entire team,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said

Dugas’ dinger definitely lit a fuse for the Tigers. They posted a three-hit, three-run seventh featuring an RBI double by freshman first baseman Tre Morgan and a two-run Drost homer for a 6-2 advantage.

“I knew I needed to get cushion runs,” Drost said. “He (State reliever Carlisle Koestler) started me on two change-ups and threw another change-up low. Then, I was expecting the fastball, saw the fastball and hit it hard.”

LSU freshman reliever Ty Floyd got tagged for two hits including MSU right fielder Tanner Allen’s RBI single in the top of the eighth. But then Tigers’ senior reliever Devin Fontenot shut down the Bulldogs the rest of the way and LSU freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson’s two-run double in the bottom of the eighth gave the home team its final five-run victory margin.

Not to be overlooked was the performance by LSU junior starting pitcher AJ Labas. He delivered six solid innings, giving up a run in first and third innings, then held MSU scoreless long enough for LSU’s bats to finally heat.

“It was the first time I’d pitched in an SEC game since my freshman year against Arkansas,” Labas said, “so it was one of those things to go out there and get the first-inning jitters out, settle down and stay in that groove for the rest of the game.”

If LSU would have lost Sunday, it would have been the first time since 2011 that the Tigers had gotten swept in their SEC opening series. Florida did it that season when LSU eventually finished 36-20 and didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Since then, LSU has been to eight straight NCAA tournaments including College World Series appearances in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

While Mainieri and his players understand getting to Omaha is the goal every season, the Tigers earning their first SEC 2021 win Sunday was a huge relief for a sophomore and freshman-dominated team. They were all playing in the first SEC series of their careers since last season was ended by the COVID-19 pandemic before league play started.

“There’s been a lot of games through my years,” Mainieri said, “that I thought `We really need to win this game today.’ I kinda had that feeling today.

“You don’t want to start a (SEC) season getting swept at home in the opening series. I thought this was an important day, but it was something I felt very positive about.”

The win broke Mississippi State’s nine-game win streak in which the Bulldogs allowed just five runs. LSU’s eight runs Sunday was the second most scored against MSU this season.

“It was a good weekend but it was about today is a new day and I didn’t think we were really good today,” said MSU coach Chris Lemonis, whose team is now 16-4 overall, 2-1 SEC. “Give LSU credit, but would’ve like to see us come out and give a better effort today.”

LSU plays at Tulane (9-10 after getting swept by Louisiana Tech this week) at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. The Tigers play their first SEC road series at Tennessee Friday through Sunday.

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Ron Higgins

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