The casket containing LSU’s 2021 baseball season was just about shut Friday night.
Until a guy who had sat for three and a half hours waiting for his chance kicked open the lid as the Tigers lived to fight another day or two or possibly more.
Pinch-hitter Zach Arnold stroked a two-run single that ignited LSU’s two-out, six-run 13th inning rally to break a 6-6 tie for a 12-6 victory at Texas A&M that clinched a spot for the Tigers in next week’s SEC tournament in Hoover.
LSU (33-21 overall, 12-17 SEC), still bouncing on the NCAA tournament bubble, added another win to its resume after losing Thursday’s series opener 2-1 to A&M (29-25, 9-19). The Aggies were eliminated by Friday’s loss from advancing to the league tourney.
Also, the Tigers’ extra-innings conquest made LSU coach Paul Mainieri the seventh coach in NCAA Division 1 history to record 1,500 wins.
“I thought a lot about my father,” said an emotional Mainieri of his late dad Demie who won 1,012 games in 30 years as head coach at Miami-Dade College. “When he won his 1,000th game, I remember thinking `Oh my God, if I can come close to winning 1,000 games, I’d be very proud of my career.’
“I can tell you that I haven’t won any games, it’s the players that have won the games. I’ve been blessed for 39 years (15 at LSU) to be surrounded by a lot of great kids, wonderfully talented baseball players and wonderful human beings who have played their hearts out for teams I’ve coached.”
It was appropriate and nerve-wracking that Mainieri reached a coaching milestone in a victory that was one of the guttiest efforts of the year by his team and the Aggies in extremely difficult seasons for both schools.
“They emptied the tank,” A&M coach Rob Childress said of his team. “We played as hard as we possibly could have played, so did LSU.”
The Tigers and the Aggies locked up rather quickly in a battle of relief pitching after the starting hurlers made their exits.
LSU starter AJ Labas imploded after 1.1 innings, giving up all of A&M’s runs as the Aggies took a 6-2 lead after two innings.
A&M starter Bryce Miller faded in the fifth when the Tigers pushed across four runs for a 6-6 tie capped by LSU third baseman Cade Doughty’s three-run homer.
But after Doughty’s homer and until Tigers’ first baseman Tre’ Morgan first hit in the game-deciding five-hit 13th inning outburst, LSU had just one hit (an Alex Milazzo single in the 11th) in its 31 previous at-bats after being shut down by A&M relievers Joseph Menefee and Chandler Jozwiak.
The Tigers finally cracked Jozwiak’s code in the 13th when he loaded the bases via a walk drawn by Milazzo, Morgan’s single and left fielder Gavin Dugas being intentionally walked with two outs.
That’s when Mainieri inserted pinch-hitter Arnold, a sophomore, who has been in and out of the starting lineup at second base and designated hitter.
“It’s a long time (to sit), especially with the game going into extra innings,” said Arnold, who slapped a single into left field to score Milazzo and Morgan. “You stay loose in the dugout as best you can. When your number is called, you have to always be ready and come through for your team.”
Arnold’s hit opened the Tigers’ scoring floodgates. Doughty followed with a two-run double that ended A&M reliever Jozwiak’s appearance. Pinch-hitter Brody Drost greeted new A&M reliever Chris Farrell with an RBI single and second baseman Drew Bianco’s infield single led to a throwing error that scored LSU’s final run.
All that was left was Tigers’ closer Devin Fontenot finishing off 11.2 consecutive scoreless innings thrown by a combined five LSU relievers. Included in that group were freshmen Michael Fowler, Ty Floyd and Garrett Edwards, who allowed a combined four hits in eight innings while striking out 10 and walking three.
Fontenot, a senior pitching 70 miles from his hometown in The Woodlands, Texas just north of Houston, was virtually perfect in his three innings. The only blemish was an intentional walk he was ordered to issue to A&M slugger Will Frizzell in the 11th.
“I saw some of the younger guys go in before me and I saw what they did,” Fontenot said. “I had to go in right behind them and do the same thing.”
LSU will try and win the series over the Aggies in Saturday’s finale at 2 p.m. The Tigers start senior M’Khail Hilliard, who’s 2-0 with a 2.60 ERA in three SEC starts in the last three weekends in which he has struck out 16 and limited opponents to a .169 batting average in 17.1 innings.