There were moments on a blustery Friday night when visiting Toledo wouldn’t have been able to make contact off Zack Hess if the hitters were sent to the plate with tennis rackets instead of aluminum bats.
The ace had his plus-stuff working from the first inning on. His fastball had zip, his slider and serious movement and his command was pinpoint.
LSU jumped out to an early lead and Hess put it in cruise control from there. He struck out a career-high 13 — 11 coming on that wicked slider — over seven innings of one-run ball and LSU began its weekend with a 8-1 victory over Toledo at Alex Box Stadium.
“I’m not sure what the story of the game was, let me think,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri joked. “Obviously Zack Hess has had two phenomenal outings in a row now, and boy is it a lift to our team when we get a start like that on a Friday night. He was in total control out there.”
The 13 strikeouts are the most by an LSU pitcher since Alex Lange struck out 13 against Kentucky in 2015. Even more impressive: Hess did it without issuing a single walk and it took him only 109 pitches (76 strikes) to do it.
Hess did it by featuring almost a 50/50 mix of fastball and slider, often pitching backward by snapping off late-breaking sliders that had hitters bucking at the knees and taking strike one.
“I’m not in the other team’s dugout, but just by the reactions I’m getting, I think a lot of teams think I’m just a big guy who throws hard and is going to try to pump it by you,” Hess said. “For me, being able to use the slider, especially early on in the count, that sets up my heater a lot better.”
Hunter Feduccia, his catcher, did most of the heavy lifting offensively. He drilled a grand slam in the seventh innings to remove any doubt from the result as part of a five RBI night. Antoine Duplantis and Jake Slaughter chipped in with three hits apiece.
But all of that felt ancillary compared to the gravity of Hess’ evening. The second dominant outing in a row sufficiently puts a rocky season debut out of mind.
Hess has now allowed just three earned runs over 13 innings while striking out 23 to post back-to-back Friday night victories. Those happen to be the only quality starts of the season for LSU (6-4) through 10 games.
Toledo (2-6) or not, it felt like a statement performance to those who questioned whether Hess can succeed in the weekend rotation once Southeastern Conference play begins in a few weeks.
“I wasn’t the one who was all scared like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be a starter,'” Hess smiled after sharing that he’d once struck out 19 batters in a seven-inning high school game. “I had some confidence.”
A new-look LSU lineup promptly gave Hess a lead to work with. Duplantis and Austin Bain led off the game with back-to-back singles, and Feduccia put the Tigers on the scoreboard with a chopper to first base.
The Tigers jumped on Toledo left-hander Michael Jacob for two more runs in the second inning. Hal Hughes brought a run home with a grounder to second base and Duplantis followed with a two-out RBI single to right.
Toledo got on the board with a run in the third. The Rockets threatened for more, but Hess got a called strike three on a nasty slider to end the inning. Toledo did foul off 10 balls in the frame and force Hess to throw 29 pitches, though, which might’ve cost him a shot at a complete game.
Jacob settled in after his shaky start and kept LSU from adding on, which seemed to bring out the best in Hess. He finished his night strong, pumping 93 mph heat in the seventh inning while striking out three of the last four batters he faced.
“His stuff was awesome,” Feduccia said. “He was on tonight. He didn’t throw his changeup, but his fastball and (slider) were lights-out tonight. He was working ahead and coming after hitters. He looked great.”
LSU blew the game open against the Rocket bullpen in the seventh. Three successive walks loaded up the bases and Feduccia unloaded them with a grand slam to right field, his first home run as a Tiger and a touch of redemption for the game-ending double play he hit into with the bases juiced on Wednesday night.
“I wish I could have done that the other night,” Feduccia said, “but what an awesome feeling.”
The Tigers will be back in action on Saturday night against Sacred Heart. First pitch is set for 6 p.m. with Caleb Gilbert (0-0, 10.80 ERA) set to get the start against lefty James Taubl (0-1, 9.00 ERA).