COLUMBIA — The LSU Tigers continue to be handed chances to win the league title, in spite of themselves.
On the heels of a disappointing series loss at home to Vanderbilt last weekend, LSU blew a three-run lead in Game 2 of Friday night’s doubleheader, as South Carolina awakened with four runs in the sixth in route to a 5-4 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 8,242 fans at Carolina Stadium.
The Tigers won the first game of the doubleheader 5-2 behind Kevin Gausman’s second consecutive complete game.
The split puts LSU at 18-11 in the league, tied with Florida and Kentucky, who surprisingly lost their second consecutive game at Mississippi State. South Carolina is benefiting from a game rained out last weekend at Georgia and leads the SEC with an 18-10 record.
No special rules exist for records of teams who have had rainouts. A victory on Saturday will win the league outright for the Gamecocks, regardless of what Kentucky and Florida do. LSU can win at least a share of the title with a win on Saturday.
All four teams are in contention for a coveted national seed in postseason play, and the NCAA will likely not grant one league more than three bids, making this final Saturday all-the-more special.
Game time for LSU-South Carolina is 12 noon CST and will be televised by ESPNU.
“It will make for an exciting day,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We had a great win earlier in the day and unfortunately, we don’t get a chance to enjoy it. It looked like we were on our way to another one and we just couldn’t quite extend the lead enough.”
Jordy Snikeris went 2-for-4 in Game 1 with a homer and three RBI. Mason Katz blasted his 11th homer of the season, and the nation’s leading hitter Raph Rhymes collected two more hits to raise his batting average to .476.
Gausman outdueled South Carolina ace Michael Roth (5-1), scattering five hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
“This is something I had circled on my calendar before the season ever started,” Gausman said. “It was something I focused on — how cool will it be to pitch against the two-time national champions in their place. It’s probably the biggest performance I’ve had since I’ve been in school because of the situation we’re in.”
“Kevin Gausman was outstanding for us in Game 1, and we earned a great team win,” Mainieri said. “We had a lot of big hits and competed extremely well at the plate against Michael Roth, who is one of the best pitchers in the SEC.”
In Game 2, LSU wasted several opportunities to blow the game open before the Gamecocks jumped on them in the sixth. They outhit South Carolina 11-8, including two hits by Rhymes (.479), but could never string together enough clutch hits to put the game away.
“The second game was a tough loss in which we had opportunities to extend our lead, but we couldn’t get the big hit at the right time,” Mainieri said.
Especially frustrating was the fifth inning when LSU extended their lead to 3-0. With runners on the corners and just one out, the Tigers could not plate anymore runs.
“We had a first and third (in the fifth), one out with Yocom up, and all we needed to do was hit a little weak ground ball to the right side and we get another run. He pops up, and we don’t add on to it. If you want to win in environments like this against teams like this, you have to take advantage of your opportunities.”
LSU also put the first two men on in the seventh but could not score. Junior closer Matt Price came in in the seventh to shut the door, worked three innings and struck out seven batters to earn his ninth save of the season.
Junior left-hander Tyler Webb (5-0) threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief to pick up the win. LSU starter Aaron Nola (6-4) was dominant through five innings, giving up just two singles and striking out six. But his tendency to not work pitch counts cost him in the sixth.
“Aaron was great for five innings,” Mainieri said. “Unfortunately, sometimes his problem is he throws too many strikes. He’s facing Walker and he’s the guy you don’t want to let beat you and he throws the first pitch right down the middle.”
Walker’s hit was a three-run homer that tied the game at 3. Joey Pankake added an RBI triple later in the inning to put the Gamecocks up for good.
“Carolina’s obviously got a lot of fight in them, that’s why they’ve got the heart of a champion,” Mainieri said.
Championship Saturday will go a long way in determining if Mainieri’s 2012 Tigers share in that distinction.