BATON ROUGE, La. — So much for the LSU baseball team lacking power.
Despite a rough outing by starting pitcher Caleb Gilbert, late home runs saved LSU in its 2018 season opener Friday night, as the Tigers came back from a 6-run deficit to defeat Notre Dame 7-6. Junior catcher Bryce Jordan opened the scoring for LSU with a grand slam in the sixth inning and sophomore shortstop Josh Smith followed with a go-ahead 3-run shot just inside the right-field foul pole in the eighth inning.
“It just kind of shows you this team, we’re grinders,” Smith said. “We’re not going to get down on ourselves. We’ve been through too much already to get down on ourselves when we still have five or six innings left of baseball. It just goes to show you that no matter how badly you play you can still sneak out a win if things happen right and you come up in big moments and get those hits.”
Making his return from an ACL injury that sidelined him for all of 2017, Jordan sparked LSU’s comeback with an at-bat to remember. Antoine Duplantis opened the sixth inning with a walk, followed by a Zach Watson single and a Daniel Cabrera walk, loading the bases. Jordan ripped the fourth pitch he saw 376 feet into the left-field stands for a grand slam, the first of his LSU career and his first home run since May 15, 2016 versus Tennessee.
Welcome back Bryce Jordan! That grand slam is his first homer since 2016. Here’s what it looked like: pic.twitter.com/Rruxss7oZ4
— LSUBaseballData (@LSUBaseballData) February 17, 2018
“I could definitely feel the energy in the place,” Jordan said postgame. “We just needed that big rally.”
One at-bat later, Jordan’s twin brother Beau nearly made it back-to-back home runs, drilling a ball deep into left field before it ran out of air on the warning track.
Smith’s theatrics came in an equally unlikely position. After making 2 errors in his first college start at shortstop, 1 of which resulted in a run, Smith came to the plate in the eighth inning 0 for 3 on the day with 3 flyouts and a walk. But with two runners on and two runners out, Smith flipped the narrative, pulling the third pitch he saw over the right-field fence, plating Beau Jordan and Chris Reid for the tying runs, and himself for the go-ahead.
“You can pucker up and kiss that baby goodbye!” 👋👋👋@josh_smith8’s three-run home run puts the Tigers ahead, 7-6, with two outs in the bottom of the eighth!
— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) February 17, 2018
“Honestly, man, I knew I either hit it to the warning track like last year or it was going out,” Smith said. “I kind of saw the right fielder going back a little bit and after that, it was … I blacked out, honestly. I don’t remember hearing anything except I remember going up to bat and looking up at one of my friends just praying, saying ‘Help me out man. I need it.’ He helped me out. And I’m thankful for that.”
Heading into this season, LSU lost 44 of its 69 home runs from 2017 to either graduation, transfer or the MLB draft.
Senior right-hander Austin Bain, who stranded two inherited Notre Dame runners in the eighth, came back out for the ninth and set down Notre Dame in order to earn the win.
As for Caleb Gilbert …
Gilbert wasn’t the same dominant pitcher on Friday that he was at the end of 2017. Notre Dame smacked Gilbert early and often, tagging him for 6 runs, 5 earned, on 9 hits in 4 1/3 innings. The Fighting Irish started their rally with a run on 2 hits in the first inning and added 2 more runs in the third and fourth innings before chasing Gilbert three batters into the fifth inning.
“They were just making some good swings on some well-located fastballs and I wasn’t burying my put-away pitches,” Gilbert said. “It was just kind of one of those days. They were spraying it around a little bit, but a lot of weird placements in the infield that you just can’t really explain. It just happened.”
LSU’s defense didn’t do Gilbert any favors, especially early. The Irish scored their first run on an error by shortstop Josh Smith, who was playing in to charge and throw out a runner at home on soft contact. The contact wasn’t soft, however, and Smith couldn’t make the out on what would’ve been a routine grounder had he been positioned normally. Smith made another error in the eighth inning to start his season with a pair of mistakes.
In the third inning, Notre Dame shortstop Cole Daily led off with an infield single tapped between Gilbert and freshman first baseman Nick Webre. Gilbert fielded the ball but Webre crashed in and second baseman Brandt Broussard didn’t cover first base in time, creating an open window for Daily to reach safely. Daily and left fielder Jake Johnson, who reached on a hit-by-pitch, advanced later in the inning on a Jordan passed ball and both came around to score.
“Like I said, it was just another ball in no-man’s-land,” Gilbert said of the miscommunication. “I went after it thinking that [Webre] was going to be at first. In the moment, I really don’t even know if I called it. We’ve talked about it and we’ve both learned from it. It just is what it is.”
LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri replaced Gilbert with sophomore right-hander Matthew Beck, who allowed 1 hit in 2.2 innings pitched with 5 strikeouts, a career-high. Beck gave way to Bain, who finished with 4 strikeouts and 1 walk in 2 innings pitched.
“I thought they were both tremendous,” Mainieri said. “Had Matthew Beck not come in and got some big outs in some key situations, even after a wild pitch, he got the guy out on the next pitch to save us another run. And there were some other times when they were able to wiggle out of some jams. It kept us in the game.”
What’s next for LSU baseball?
LSU returns to action on Saturday for Game 2 of its three-game series versus Notre Dame. Action is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. CT and will be available for stream through WatchESPN.