By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Alex Lange pumped his fist as he walked off the mound after his eighth strong inning of work, emphatically gesturing to the crowd to make enough noise to awaken a slumbering lineup.
The rally LSU’s ace was practically begging for never came.
Despite a complete game effort from Lange, LSU came up a clutch hit — or sacrifice fly, at times — short in a 3-2 loss to South Carolina on Friday night at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers had chances right but to the end but couldn’t find a way to break through against a team that lost its own ace to Tommy John Surgery.
“The difference in the game was we had our opportunities and we didn’t execute when we had our chances,” Kramer Robertson said. “You’re not going to beat really good teams like this if you squander so many opportunities.
“They just came up with one more big hit than we did. Really I don’t think we came up with any big hits. That’s a little bit frustrating.”
Trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Nick Coomes drew a one-out walk against flame-throwing closer Tyler Johnson. Robertson followed with a swinging bunt down the first base line. Gamecock first baseman Matt Williams fielded the ball and flipped to a vacated bag, moving both runners into scoring position. A hit by pitch then loaded the bases with one out.
Jordan Romero got ahead on the count 3-1, but Johnson battled back and popped him up in foul territory on a 3-2 pitch. Mike Papierski, who reached base in all three previous plate appearances, flied out to center on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning.
Zach Watson drew a leadoff walk against Johnson to begin the ninth and a sacrifice bunt moved the tying run into scoring position. He moved to third base on Cole Freeman’s groundout, prompting an intentional walk of Greg Deichmann. Jake Slaughter, who entered as a pinch runner earlier in the game, struck out to end the game.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said he didn’t consider pinch hitting for Slaughter. The freshman has now struck out 36 times in 117 at-bats coming into Friday night.
“I’m not sure who you wanted me to bring in,” Mainieri said. “Jake Slaughter has trouble with certain kind of pitchers, but not normally fastball pitchers. He did the best he could. He just swung at pitches up and the zone, and when those pitches are coming in as fast as this kid throws, they’re hard to lay off. And if you don’t lay off, it’s hard to hit them.”
The Tigers finished the night 2-for-16 with runners on base, 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 men on base. The loss drops LSU to 30-16 overall and 13-9 in the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks improve to 27-27 overall and 11-11 in the SEC.
South Carolina tagged Lange for three sharp singles in the second inning to get on the board. With two on and one out, Deichmann came up throwing on a single to right and cut down Jonah Bride at the plate. However, after video review, Bride was ruled safe. He slid around the tag from Papierski.
The Gamecocks did more damage from there. After a strikeout, No. 9 hitter Madison Stokes came through with a two-out, two-run single up the middle on a hanging 1-2 curveball from Lange, putting LSU in an early 3-0 hole.
“Can’t do that,” Lange said. “Cost the team the game. That’s on me. I take full responsibility. I can’t hang a breaking ball to the nine hole with guys in scoring position with two strikes and two outs.”
A golden opportunity to answer back materialized in the bottom of the inning. A Robertson single and successive walks to Romero and Papierski loaded the bases with two outs, but Zach Watson lined a bullet right at the second baseman to end the threat.
The Tigers got on the board in the fourth inning to creep within two. Robertson turned on an inside 3-1 fastball from South Carolina right-hander Will Crowe for a solo home run to left field, his fifth of the season.
LSU got another one back in the fifth. Papierski and Watson led off the inning with back-to-back sharp singles. They moved into scoring position on a hit-and-run gone array, which luckily became a double steal. Papierski came home on a wild pitch. Crowe was lifted from the game after walking Cole Freeman.
Lefty Josh Reagan came on to face Deichmann with runners on the corners and one out, protecting a one-run lead. The slugger swung at Reagan’s first offering and grounded into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.
LSU put the leadoff man on base in the sixth and seventh innings to no avail. Coomes led off the sixth with a walk that went nowhere. Papierski beat out an infield single to begin the seventh, his second hit of the night, but never advanced past there.
Lange found his groove after the rocky second inning. He faced the minimum in each of the next five innings.
The right hander picked up a strikeout in the sixth to tie Aaron Nola for third place on the program’s all-time list, and surpassed his one inning later with career punch out No. 346, his fourth of the night. Lange picked up another and induced a comebacker to leave an insurance run at third base in the eighth.
It wasn’t of any consolation to him.
“No, because we lost,” a visibly annoyed Lange said. “I could care less. If I go one inning and get a win, I’m happy. If I go nine and we lost, it doesn’t matter.”
The series will resume Saturday night with first pitch of game two set for 7 p.m. LSU will honor the 20-year anniversary of the 1997 National Championship team.