When you enter another SEC baseball weekend on the doorstep of the league cellar, there is no tomorrow.
And when you’ve lost three straight league series despite being ranked 10th nationally, the margin of error is almost nil.
It’s why SEC West rival coaches Paul Mainieri of LSU and Mike Bianco of Ole Miss each used their most experienced closers for the final three innings in the opener of a three-game series Thursday night in Oxford won 5-4 by the Tigers before a Swayze Field crowd of 9,035
“We put all our cards on the table tonight playing like it was the seventh game of the World Series,” said Mainieri, whose Tigers (23-14 overall, 5-11 SEC West) won a game for the first time this season when trailing after six innings.
LSU’s emotion was palpable, especially when reliever Devin Fontenot screamed after striking out Ole Miss designated hitter Calvin Harris with the bases loaded to end the game.
Last Saturday, it was Fontenot who was three outs away from clinching the Tigers’ series over South Carolina when he gave up pair of two-RBI doubles in the Gamecocks’ last at-bat as they rallied for a 4-2 win in game two and ultimately won the series with a 9-0 game three conquest.
This time, before the first packed stadium the Tigers have played in this season because of the state of Mississippi’s non-existent coronavirus social distancing protocols, Fontenot was fully amped to get the job done.
“I was telling myself `This is LSU, we’re playing for something bigger than ourselves’,” said Fontenot, who allowed two hits and no runs and struck out five and walked three in 58 pitches thrown to 14 batters in the last three innings. “To get this win, we’re not just going to lay down and let teams do what they’ve done in the past. We’re going to fight this thing to end.”
It was Tigers’ freshman right fielder Dylan Crews’ two-run homer off Ole Miss closer Taylor Broadway in LSU’s three-run seventh inning that provided the margin of victory.
After LSU could only get two runs and four hits through six innings off last-second Ole Miss emergency starter Derek Diamond, it tagged SEC saves leader Broadway for seven hits and two runs in three innings.
Diamond and his bloated 7.36 earned run average got the starting nod when Bianco pulled starting pitcher and staff bellcow Gunnar Hoglund because of a sore arm.
That seemed like a huge break for the Tigers since LSU started its pitching staff ace Landon Marceaux, whose 1.65 ERA was third best in the SEC.
But in a total role reversal, Diamond, after allowing two LSU runs in a first inning fueled by three Ole Miss errors and RBI single by freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson, blanked the Tigers until he was pulled after he gave up a leadoff seventh inning double to LSU center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo.
Marceaux was tagged for eight hits in 5.1 innings, including three home runs. He was removed immediately after Ole Miss shortstop Jacob Gonzales’ two-run homer gave the Rebels a 4-2 lead with no outs in the sixth inning.
Ole Miss banged out 10 hits but left 13 runners on base including at least one every inning. The Rebels were 4-for-21 (.190) with runners on base and 1-for-9 (.111) with runners in scoring position.
“There’s enough blame to go around,” said Bianco, whose Rebels dropped to 27-11 overall and 9-7 in the SEC West. “We had a lead and we blew it in the bullpen. But again, we left some runners on. It’s tough. Usually we’re good at that. It’s a thing we usually do really well is hit with runners in scoring position. Tonight, we just weren’t able to do that.”
LSU was just 3 of 13 (.231) with runners in scoring position, but two of those hits came in the seventh when freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan hit a 3-0 pitch for an RBI single scoring DiGiacomo and Crews followed with his two-run homer off a 1-1 pitch.
“I was really trying to be aggressive, I didn’t want to get to two strikes there,” Crews said of his 10th homer of the season. “I just wanted to put a bat on a ball. I got a good pitch to hit and I didn’t miss it.”
A base-running gaffe cost LSU an insurance run in the eighth.
With the bases loaded and one out, LSU catcher Jake Wyeth flied out to Ole Miss right fielder John Rhys Plumlee. Tigers’ second baseman Drew Bianco on first base and shortstop Jordan Thompson on third base simultaneously tagged to advance a base.
But Bianco was tagged out at second base for the third out just before Thompson crossed home plate with a sixth run.
“It’s a real hustle play,” Mainieri said. “But when you have the runner scoring from third base, you have to know your speed in relation to the speed of the runner from third base. If there is going to be a close play, what he should do is pull up and let them get him in a rundown and concede the out but make sure you’re not tagged out before the run scores. It has to be an instinctive thing.
“We go over those things. But they happen so rarely and sometimes in the heat of battle kids forget those types of things.”
LSU goes for the series win in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. game two. The Tigers will start AJ Labas (2-0, 3.35 ERA, 51.0 IP, 9 BB, 50 SO) on the mound facing Ole Miss staff ace Doug Nikhazy (4-1, 1.86 ERA, 38.2 IP, 16 BB, 59 SO).
The game will be televised on ESPN+.