The first battle of the nation’s top two clubs lived up to its billing in a wild night at The Box.
After the squads traded leads throughout an evenly-matched contest, LSU sophomore pinch hitter Danny Zardon delivered a game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning, lifting the No. 1 Tigers to a thrilling 4-3 win against No. 2 Texas A&M on Thursday night at Alex Box Stadium.
It was the sixth time in seven games LSU (36-6, 13-5 Southeastern Conference) and the Aggies (36-6, 12-6 SEC) had a contest decided by one run, with the Tigers going 4-3 during that span.
“If you’re a fan of college baseball, how does it get any better than this?” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
After senior second baseman Jared Foster singled and advanced to second base on a wild pitch, Zardon pulled a 2-1 slider down the left field, inches away from being ruled foul.
“As soon as I hit it, I was just hoping it was fair,” Zardon said. “Thank God it was.”
Foster hesitated for a moment before turning the corner around third base and crossing home plate for the game-winning run. Still standing on the field, Zardon then screamed and pointed toward his teammates, who poured out of the dugout to celebrate taking the first game of this weekend’s top-two showdown.
“What you saw was a battle between two very evenly-matched teams,” Mainieri said. “[Thursday’s game] shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody.”
Despite not getting the win, LSU sophomore starter Jared Poche’ delivered a strong outing for the Tigers.
After struggling early, the southpaw found his groove as the game wore on, firing five scoreless frames after giving up two runs in the first two innings. Poche’ retired the sides in four of the seven innings he pitched, surrendering one earned run and six hits on a season-low 65 pitches.
Poche’ retired 10 of the 11 batters after his rocky start and worked through the order in the third and fourth innings on a combined 13 pitches. At one point, he forced outs against nine straight Texas A&M batters.
Poche’ didn’t allow a runner to reach scoring position after the second inning and picked the Aggies apart in a six-pitch seventh before Mainieri went to his bullpen.
“I gave up too early against them last year,” Poche’ said. “They’re a good hitting team. You can’t blow by those types of guys. You have to execute pitches, locate and let the defense work. I was able to do that after the second inning.”
But while Poche’ struggled early, Aggies junior pitcher Grayson Long had early success against an LSU lineup that entered the series ranked No. 3 in the nation with a .320 batting average.
Long mowed through the Tigers through the first three innings, giving up just a pair of two-out singles while retiring nine of 11 at the plate. But Long’s night unraveled in a game-tying fourth inning.
With runners on the corners and one away, junior outfielder Andrew Stevenson hit a ball to sophomore second baseman Ryne Birk, who tried to set up a 4-6-3 double play.
But Texas A&M senior shortstop Blake Allemand’s throw to first base was too late, which allowed Stevenson to reach base and the runner on third to score. With the crowd coming alive, LSU junior first baseman Chris Chinea then smoked a single to left field, driving in Stevenson from second base and tying the game, 2-2.
The Tigers went ahead, 3-2, in the seventh inning thanks to a throwing error by Aggies junior reliever Ty Schlottmann, which allowed sophomore outfielder Jake Fraley to score from third.
But LSU’s lead didn’t last long, as Texas A&M junior outfielder J.B. Moss led off the ninth by banging a triple off Tigers freshman closer Jesse Stallings to deep centerfield. He scored one batter later to tie the game at 3.
LSU sophomore pitcher Collin Strall (3-0, 4.20 ERA) picked up the win and the last out of the ninth by fanning senior pinch hitter G.R. Hinsley, setting up a finish to remember for Foster and his teammates.
“As soon as I took a step and saw the umpire say ‘fair,’ I was like, ‘That’s game,’” Foster said.
But Thursday’s game was just the first of what’s expected to be a back-and-forth series between the nation’s top two ball clubs. The teams will square off again at 7 p.m. tonight at Alex Box Stadium, and LSU freshman pitcher Alex Lange (7-0, 1.40 ERA) will get the starting nod against the Aggies.
Mainieri said it’s time to look toward Game 2.
“[On Friday] the game starts 0-0 again, and I very much expect the same game tomorrow night as well as Saturday,” Mainieri said.
You can reach David Gray on Twitter @dgray_TDR.