We were promised a pitcher’s duel for the ages between Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle and LSU’s Alex Lange when the two met late Thursday night. The SEC Pitcher of the Year and one of the most prolific strikeout artists to ever grace the conference in a big match up between the two and three seeds in the tournament. We didn’t quite get that.
The battle between the two pitchers was evenly contested for a solid inning until the bottom half of the LSU order unlocked the mystery of the 6’11” Sean Hjelle in the second inning. After some defensive miscues, a hit by pitch, and a single from Michael Papierski to load the bases, Kramer Robertson knocked in two runs with a line drive off of the third baseman’s glove. Three straight hits from Cole Freeman, Antoine Duplantis, and Greg Deichmann put up three more runs to put the total to five in one inning, with LSU batting around.
Hjelle would shove back for the next two innings with eight straight outs via six strikeouts, but LSU beat down the doors again in the fifth. Deichmann started the party with a double to left field and was scored on a Nick Coomes single up the gut. Josh Smith doubled to right before a Beau Jordan ground out scored Coomes. Zach Watson also singled before Kramer Robertson unleashed a mammoth blast to left field to put LSU ahead 10-0 and unlock the run rule after seven innings.
While LSU chopping up Hjelle was huge, Lange not letting up and keeping the Wildcats off the board was bigger in the long run. Lange went seven scoreless innings on six hits, walking none and striking out seven, passing Ben McDonald on the LSU career strikeouts list in the process. Throughout the entire game Kentucky only had two runners in scoring position.
Lange had some assistance from Zach Watson out in center, who by himself saved about four hits and six or eight bases with his range on fly balls, making a diving stop on one of them in the second inning.
With the shortened complete game, Lange saved the bullpen from being used, meaning that in addition to starters Jared Poche’ and Eric Walker in the barrel for the semifinal on Saturday and potential final on Friday, nearly all the key bullpen arms are available: Hunter Newman, Austin Bain, Russell Reynolds, Zack Hess, and pending suspension Todd Peterson. The only arm that is really off the table is Caleb Gilbert who threw five innings Wednesday night against Missouri and obviously Lange.
LSU awaits the winner of Friday’s Kentucky-South Carolina game for their 1:00 PM date Saturday. After Friday the format of the tournament shifts back to single elimination so Kentucky can still eliminate LSU despite going 1-1 against them. It is likely that Jared Poche’ will pitch that game with Eric Walker in the hole for a prospective championship game. That game will air on the SEC Network.