LSU took both games of their doubleheader against Kentucky Saturday to take the series win on SEC opening weekend.
The Tigers trailed much of the rain-postponed game one before scoring a run in the bottom of the 8th to force extra innings. The Tigers then won on a walkoff walk behind a gutsy performance from Zack Hess and and Devin Fontenot. LSU then claimed the series by throttling UK 16-4 in the second half of the day’s baseball.
Game one was a battle of the Zacks, with Kentucky’s Thompson going blow for blow with LSU’s Hess.
Thompson finished with no runs allowed on four hits across six innings with nine strikeouts and just two walks. Hess saw his pitch count climb to 118 across seven innings where he also allowed four hits and struck out six. However, Hess walked six batters and in the first inning that came around to bite him for what would be the game’s only run until the eighth.
Daniel Cabrera was the only Tiger to figure out Thompson, going 3-3 at the plate with two singles, a double, and a walk.
“We went up against one of the best if not the best pitchers in our league,” Mainieri said. “He was tremendous, but I thought our kids really battled him hard and I though Zack (Hess) kept us in the game.”
After both pitchers left the game, the difference became the bullpen.
The Wildcats used six different pitchers while LSU was able to rely on Devin Fontenot to keep the Tigers in the game. Fontenot finished with five innings of two-hit baseball where he struck out five and walked none. While LSU’s offense fought to get off the ground, he provided cover to get the game into the fateful 12th inning.
“I knew (LSU coach Paul Mainieri) had confidence in me,” Fontenot said. “I knew that he knew that I felt good, so I was just going to keep going out there and getting one out at a time and doing the best that I could.”
Kentucky took a quick 1-0 lead in game one after a leadoff walk came around to score with the help of a stolen base and two singles.
“If I could just throw the first inning in the bullpen and then go into the game after that, that’d be nice,” Hess joked.
After that first inning Hess pitched well, escaping jam after jam. Hess’ tenure as a starter may be rocky, but on Saturday afternoon he proved that he certainly has the mental fortitude it takes to be the game one starter in SEC play.
“That first inning was kind of scary,” Mainieri said. “As Zack always does, he pitched out of it. He limited the damage to one run. But honestly the way Zack Thompson was throwing, I was wondering if that one run was going to cost us the ballgame.”
LSU was able to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth when Zach Watson led off with a single up the middle followed by three straight walks to bring him home. LSU was able to score without putting the ball in play behind Watson in a classic display of foreshadowing.
After clean innings in the 10th and 11th, LSU was able to win the game in the 12th after Watson reached base on another leadoff single. He then advanced to third on a single to left from Chris Reid. An intentional walk to Cabrera loaded the bases for pinch-hitter Giovanni DiGiacomo, who took a walk to bring in the winning run.
Game two leaned more in LSU’s favor, starting in the first inning when the Tigers equaled their run total from the first 12 innings of the day in just a third of an inning. A single from Watson and a hit by pitch set up Reid, who scored two runs with a double to left field.
After a dozen inning pitcher’s duel, it was exactly the shot in the arm the LSU offense needed to wake up the bats on a chilly night.
“That kind of jump-started us right from the start,” Mainieri said. “Hitting is a contagious thing and confidence is everything in the game of baseball. When you have teammates come through with a big hit, you don’t want to be the one guy that’s not coming through. I think that set the tone for the night. We started hitting and really never stopped.”
“We had the momentum from winning the first game,” Watson said. “We knew if we came out here and scored some runs it almost seemed like they were going to shut down. We went out there and kept a lead on them the whole time. We just swung the bat so well and it was an amazing performance.”
The Wildcats got a run back in the top of the second, but the Tigers roared to life in the bottom half of the inning, scoring six runs on four hits and an error, batting around in the process. The inning was anchored by a three-run home run from Watson to left field as his niece served as the stadium’s junior announcer.
“I was trying to hit a home run because my neice was up there,” Watson said. “She introduced for the 4th inning. I really wanted to get up there and hit a home run for her. It got down to a 2-2 (count) and he threw two curveballs in the dirt. I knew it was going to be a fastball and I ended up getting it out. I was pretty proud of myself.”
Kentucky scored two runs in the 4th off of a double, a single, and a pair of walks resulting in a wild pitch to inch closer. LSU responded by scoring five runs in the bottom half of the inning on two hits and an error to burst out to a 14-3 lead over UK. LSU added two more runs in the 6th off a walk and a double from Watson, to bring him within a triple shy of the cycle.
“I thought our guys showed a lot of tenacity in the second game,” Mainieri said. “It was a pretty good all-around performance.”
More importantly for LSU, the Tigers finished the day with only four pitchers used. Cole Henry and Trent Vietmeier both shined bright in game two, with Henry throwing the first five innings where he allowed three runs on six hits, striking out six and walking four while Vietmeier allowed one run on five hits in four innings of work, striking out a career high six batters and allowing just a walk.
“That was a really great performance by our entire team,” Mainieri said. “I was telling (LSU Pitching Coach) Alan (Dunn) if you told me before the day started we were going to end up playing 21 innings and only use four pitchers I’m not sure I would have bought into that. We only had to use four pitchers because we had two outstanding starting pitching performances and two phenomenal relief performances. And that leaves us with enough guys to get through one more game.”
That sets up the Tigers well for tomorrow, where they will have Eric Walker, Todd Peterson, and Matthew Beck at their disposal. The Tigers go for the sweep Sunday at 2:00 p.m.