COLUMBIA — After Friday’s doubleheader LSU coach Paul Mainieri was praising the two-time defending national champion Gamecocks on their fight, saying they have the heart of a champion.
Tonight Mainieri can say that about his ballclub.
Behind lockdown pitching and some clutch tenth inning hitting, No. 4 LSU took the rubber match of the three-game series against South Carolina, 3-2, winning the SEC title outright for the first time since 2003.
The Tigers were SEC co-champions in 2009, the year they beat Texas for the national championship. It is LSU’s SEC-best 15th conference championship.
LSU started the weekend against tall odds, first of all having to play at South Carolina, ranked No. 1 in the country in the NCBWA poll, then having to root for Mississippi State to win the series against Kentucky and for Auburn to win at least one game against Florida.
It all happened. And then some.
The Tigers (42-14, 19-11) took two of three from the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs swept Kentucky, and Auburn topped the Gators on Saturday. What looked like a sure-fire co-champions scenario with four teams vying for the top going into the weekend turned into something truly improbable. Only one emerged.
“What a resilient effort by our players; they’ve certainly earned the right to call themselves SEC champions,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “This team has overcome adversity all season and overachieved in a lot of ways. I’m extremely proud to be their coach — they’re young men of great character who represent our university the right way. To win the SEC title in this environment against the two-time defending national champions is a tremendous achievement.”
The victory dampened a tremendous run by South Carolina, who won 17 of their final 23 conference games to dig out of an early last place hole. The Gamecocks did clinch the SEC East division crown with the losses by Kentucky and Florida.
“I’m proud of my team for hanging in there,” Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. “We made a run towards the middle of the year to get back into the conference race. We ended up playing on the last day with a chance to win the whole thing. I told our players that I was impressed by what they did. They battled and worked hard. We’ve come a long ways from Kentucky in the opening weekend.
“Congratulations to LSU. They’ve got a tremendous team.”
Pinch hitter Jackson Slaid came through with a two-out RBI single in the top of the 10th inning to put LSU up 3-1. Jordy Snikeris had led off the inning with a walk and Tyler Hanover bunted him over to second. Two batters later, Slaid punched a full-count pitch into right field to plate Snikeris.
“It’s a cool feeling,” said Slaid. “I grew up at the old (Alex Box Stadium) like a lot of these guys did. It’s definitely a cool feeling.”
“You never know who’s going to be the hero, but that’s been kind of the story of our team all year — different hero every day,” Mainieri said.
Mason Katz followed with an RBI single of his own that would end up being the difference in the ballgame.
After lefty Chris Cotton shut down South Carolina for three scoreless innings, surrendering only a two-out walk in the ninth, closer Nick Goody came in to pitch the tenth. Evan Marzilli led the inning off with a generously scored double, a routine fly ball misplayed and then missed by substitute center fielder Jared Foster. A single by Adam Matthews put runners at the corners, and Christian Matthews lined a sacrifice fly to center to cut LSU’s lead to 3-2. But Goody got the final two outs for his tenth save, the biggest of the season.
“The whole time I was yelling ‘Tyler (Moore), you better catch that,’ ” Goody said of the pop-up that ended the game. “And then out of nowhere came Mason (Katz), whose defense was incredible all weekend. That’s just a moment that I’m going to treasure forever.”
“When Mason Katz squeezed that last pop-up, it’s just a feeling that’s hard to describe, because you know how much was put into it,” Mainieri said. “It’s just a remarkable feeling. I’m just so proud of the guys. Saying you’re so proud of them seems so inadequate. It’s beyond words I can even use to describe how I feel. It’s just fantastic.”
Indeed, it is fantastic. The LSU Tigers. The very best in the best league in the land.
LSU 3, South Carolina 2
TIGERS 100 000 000 2 – 3 7 0
GAMECOCKS 001 000 000 1 – 2 9 0
WP – Chris Cotton (6-0)
LP – Evan Beal (3-4)
S – Nick Goody(10)