BATON ROUGE, La. — When Antoine Duplantis crossed home plate with the go-ahead run in the 12th inning of LSU’s SEC Tournament dogfight with South Carolina, he breathed a sigh of relief. There was an end in sight.
When he looked at the next player heading toward the batter’s box, he was overwhelmed by a very different emotion. It was 6-foot-5, 225-pound LSU relief pitcher Todd Peterson, who never had swung a bat in college.
“I looked at him with a helmet on,” Duplantis said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
“Believe me, it wasn’t a genius move,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I just wanted to make sure he was still in to pitch [the bottom of the 12th].”
Peterson did not cut a particularly intimidating figure in the box.
“He’s not got the most athletic-looking body up there,” Mainieri said. “The stirrups, the high tops, no batting gloves. He kind of beats to the tune of his own drummer a little bit. Everyone knows that.”
The shot heard ’round Hoover
What happened next is on par with any of the accidentally excellent moments in baseball memory.
You know, like the time Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Canseco had a home run bounce off his head, or when Chicago Cubs catcher John Baker earned a win as a pitcher, or when aging and rotund New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon blasted his first big-league home run.
On the third pitch he ever faced, Peterson belted a two-run double off the wall at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium to break the game open for the Tigers. The result was a seminal moment in an up-and-down Tigers season.
“Off the bat, we thought it was gone,” Mainieri said. “Just to see the reaction of our players was priceless. I feel like it loosened everybody up, including me. The game seemed fun again.”
Duplantis was among the teammates who were deeply amused — and a little jealous — that Peterson made the art of hitting look like a parlor trick.
“It was just a funny moment because it seems so unlikely. He hasn’t hit in four years and comes in against college pitching,” Duplantis said. “We work on that every single day and it’s tough. It’s just a crazy moment.”
So crazy a moment that pitchers that the pitchers from both teams in the tournament nightcap that Thursday night united in celebration.
“[Auburn coach] Butch Thompson says to me, ‘I’m really upset at you. Now all our pitchers want to bat,'” Mainieri said. “They were cheering madly in the stands for an arch-rival in the SEC West because he hit a ball off the wall. And I understand Texas A&M was on the other side doing the same thing.”
The postgame events turned Peterson’s unlikely double from a footnote to an overnight sensation.
In a memorable interview on the SEC Network, Peterson casually boasted of “hitting bombs” in high school.
OH BABY! @Todd_Peterson3 stepped up big time for the Tigers tonight in extras!
— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) May 25, 2018
But in the postgame press conference, Peterson revealed that he never actually batted in a high school game. That, along with Mainieri’s realization he’d been duped, turned it into a highlight that was featured by Sports Illustrated and multiple ESPN shows the following day.
Peterson maintains his innocence. Sort of.
“It’s all about perspective,” Peterson said. “Did I actually lie? I hit in batting practice. I just didn’t tell him it wasn’t in an actual game.”
Though he has a 1.000 career batting average and 2.000 slugging percentage, Peterson isn’t angling to become a two-way player like teammate Austin Bain.
“I wasn’t expecting it to blow up the way it did. It was really exciting,” Peterson said. “But at the end of the day, I know I’m a pitcher. I’m not going to live in that moment. It’s something I’ll talk about with my kids, but at the end of the day, I’m going to do my thing on the mound.”
Peterson’s transformation on the mound is every bit as unlikely as his slugging. He began the season in the starting rotation, then got yanked after just two starts when he was shelled for a 9.00 ERA.
He pitched well enough in the bullpen to earn another crack at starting — then got rocked yet again, allowing 4 runs on 5 hits in only 2 innings at Ole Miss.
His next move was to the back of the bullpen, where he’s been sound as LSU’s newest closer. In six appearances, Peterson has 4 saves and a win with a 2.31 ERA.
In a way, Peterson’s journey makes him a perfect symbol for LSU’s season at large.
The Tigers headed to the SEC Tournament needing a first-round win over Mississippi State to assure themselves of a bid to the NCAA Regional Tournament. They got that and more, reaching the tournament title game and carrying some momentum into their regional at Oregon State.
“It’s not been like the typical LSU teams where you’ve got 40-plus wins in a season,” Peterson said. “We’re fighting every game to keep alive.”