HOOVER, Ala. — Two of LSU’s most talented stars snapped out of respective funks to propel the Tigers into another Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship Game.
Zack Hess bested both a lightning storm and the league’s most thunderous lineup to fire seven innings of one-hit ball with seven strikeouts to earn his first win since April 13 against Tennessee. Zach Watson homered for the first time since April 3 against Nicholls State to put LSU ahead and make his ace’s efforts stand up.
LSU earned a chance to make it back-to-back SEC Tournament crowns with a 2-1 victory over Arkansas that completed an improbable run out of the loser’s bracket. The Tigers have now won four elimination games in five days, including notching victories over Florida and Arkansas, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the RPI, respectively, on the same day.
“We’re here on Sunday, we might as well try to win this thing,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
LSU and Ole Miss will play for the tournament title on Sunday at 2 p.m. before turning their respective attentions to the NCAA Selection Show on Monday. Paul Mainieri is going for his seventh SEC Tournament victory in 12 years at LSU and has never previously lost in the finals.
The LSU coach will be short on pitching options going in — so like the rest of this week, more or less — but he’ll sleep better at night knowing his ace appears to be back on track heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Hess began the game razor sharp, mixing in all three of his pitches to retire the first six batters he faced in order. The changeup was noticeably a more present piece of the arsenal than it had been as the right hander struggled in recent weeks. Hess had pitched to a bloated 6.52 ERA in his previous six outings before Saturday.
Turns out that was a concerted effort. Hess felt teams had figured out his tendencies through scouting and were hurting him by sitting on his fastball and laying off the slider. Mixing in 12-to-15 changeups proved to be a tendency breaker and kept a loaded lineup off balance.
“These last three weeks, teams have been putting some swings on me that they weren’t really putting on me at the beginning of the year,” Hess said. “So sitting in Coach (Alan) Dunn’s office watching tape, we developed a game plan and changed up the approach. Made my changeup more of a factor and it really helped my fastball and my slider out.”
A thunderstorm drenched the field and halted play in the middle of the third inning. Despite a delay of one hour and 26 minutes, both Hess and Campbell surprisingly returned to the game. Hess went through his entire pre-game routine while the grounds crew prepared the field for play.
Mainieri acknowledged it was an agonizing decision to bring Hess back with both the NCAA Tournament and the MLB Draft a week away. LSU generally hooks a pitcher if the delay extends past an hour, so Mainieri had Hess begin playing catch to stay loose under the supervision of Dunn around that hour mark.
“I had a lot of hesitation about doing that because we’ve got big games next weekend and he’s got a big career ahead of him,” Mainieri explained. “The last thing in the world I would ever do is put him at risk … I looked Zack in the eye and said ‘Look, I want you to tell me the truth and don’t try to be a hero. I want to know if you feel at all not 100 percent.’ He went out and starting doing his thing and AD was convinced he was fine. That and the kid convinced me. So we played it inning by inning by inning. I didn’t think he’d go beyond five or six, but he was so efficient and never had that long inning where he had to go to another gear.”
Hess, who felt his time as a reliever helped prepared him for such a turn of events, appeared no worse for wear after the intermission, though he made his lone mistake of the afternoon in the bottom of the third. Hess laid a cookie over the plate in a 2-0 count and Arkansas first baseman Jared Gates deposited over the fence in right-center field to put the Hogs ahead 1-0.
“Once I got back on the field, I feel like I was able to pick up right where I left off,” Hess said.
Arkansas starter Isaiah Campbell was every bit Hess’ equal through the first five innings after weathering the delay. He allowed just one hit over that span, an infield single legged out by Bryce Jordan. His afternoon came to an abrupt end in the sixth.
Brandt Broussard legged out an infield single to lead off the inning and things quickly snowballed. Campbell fell behind 3-1 in the count to Watson and served up a two-run bomb to left field. A subsequent Antoine Duplantis single chased him from the game.
“It had been a while since I’d seen Watty hit one out, but that was a no-doubter,”Mainieri smiled. “There wasn’t much hitting today. Campbell was really tough dropping that breaking ball in there, but we finally got it figured out and Watty hit one out.”
Hess didn’t blink again after the solo shot. He retired the next 10 batters in a row with four strikeouts. He one walk in both the sixth and seventh innings but cruised through the most dangerous part of Arkansas’ lineup without either advancing into scoring position.
Things got hairy once Nick Bush took over in the eighth and yielded two soft singles with one out.
Eric Cole nearly launched a three-run blast to left but Daniel Cabrera, standing in a puddle, hauled it in a few feet shy of the fence. Carson Shaddy followed with a bullet up the middle that appeared to redirect off the mound and go right to Broussard, who was shifted perfectly to field the rocket.
“I still can’t figure out how they had a guy playing there,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “I’ve never seen Carson hit a ball right to that spot.” That credit belongs to LSU assistant Nolan Cain, who handles all of LSU’s shifts and defensive positioning.
That scare factor was enough for Mainieri to dispatch Todd Peterson to the bullpen after vowing to not use him again in the tournament. Bush rendered it a moot point by retiring the side in order against the heart of the Hog lineup to earn the save.