LSU walked into Knoxville but left its offense in Oregon for game one of its super regional matchup with Tennessee. The Tigers couldn't get cooking and a three run sixth inning was enough for the Volunteers to pull out a 4-2 win.
The big question coming into the series was how the newfound confidence of this LSU pitching staff would adapt to one of the power hitting teams in the country in a power friendly ball park. LSU went with senior Ma'Khail Hilliard to start and the senior responded in a big way to get the Tigers steered in the right direction.
All of Hilliard's pitches were working Saturday evening as he caught multiple Tennessee hitters with that curveball of his and looked sharp even after a 55 minute weather delay after the second inning.
He'd allow a single run in the third upon return but was near flawless the remainder of his outing, beating his chest as he strolled off the mound in the fifth, trying to energize his team. Hilliard would go five innings and allow just the one run with six strikeouts and no walks.
"I thought Ma'Khail was terrific," Mainieri said. "I was really happy to get five good innings out of Ma'Khail, he was outstanding. He threw 76 pitches and we were getting ready to go to the top of the order and they'd already faced Ma'Khail twice."
LSU didn't have many opportunities against Tennessee starter Chad Dallas. The Volunteers ace struck out 10 batters in the first five innings as the offense was able to only muster three hits during that stretch. If it was known before the game that Tre Morgan and Gavin Dugas would start the game a combined 0-for-6 with six strikeouts, most probably wouldn't have liked the Tigers' chances.
"It was very similar to the game at the very beginning of the year going up against Dallas," Mainieri said. "He threw an awful lot of sliders and we didn't have much of an answer for it. We just had a tough time making contact against him."
Yet, LSU was able to make the most of its limited opportunities with Dallas on the mound. It started in the pouring rain for LSU as third baseman Cade Doughty was able to put the Tigers on the board first with an opposite field home run in the second. The baserunning of Drew Bianco, who collected two hits on the night, tacked on another run in the fifth to give LSU a 2-1 advantage.
Throughout the contest, neither offense was helped much by the strike zone but when LSU replaced Hilliard in the sixth with freshman Javen Coleman, the Volunteers offense woke up but was also helped by the Tigers.
A mental error from Doughty over at third with runners on second and third as well as three walks issued by Coleman helped the Volunteers tack on three runs in the inning to take control of the game with a 4-2 lead. While it wasn't recorded as an error, Doughty got caught up in trying to decide whether to place a tag on a runner behind him or make the routine play to first, not able to do either.
It proved to be a lead LSU could not recover from as the top of the Tigers' order couldn't get anything going. The top four of Tre Morgan, Zach Arnold, Dylan Crews and Gavin Dugas went a combined 3-for-16 with nine strikeouts. After a leadoff hit from Dugas in the ninth, it looked as if Doughty had connected on a second homer that would've tied the game but fell short of the warning track.
"We thought for sure it was a two run homer to tie the ball game but the air was much heavier and the ball was caught at the warning track. We thought we had tied the game there," Mainieri said. "It didn't play out that way."
LSU would put two runners in scoring position in the ninth but would cap off the game with a strikeout, ending the threat.
The Tigers now have their backs against the walls once again for two straight contests as Landon Marceaux will take the mound for game two Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.
Photo courtesy of LSUsports.