Paul Mainieri leaned his head against the dugout railing inside Alex Box Stadium. He rested it there for a moment, lifted his gaze and rubbed his forehead. In front of him, another LSU pitcher struggled to throw strikes against Oral Roberts, hitting a batter with the bases loaded in the fourth inning. Mainieri sat down and tugged his cap.
Mainieri watched similar moments often Friday afternoon as LSU lost 22-7, the second-worst defeat of his tenure. The No. 8 Tigers made several defensive mistakes, issued 10 free passes and suffered their largest defeat since a 19-3 loss to Florida on May 11, 2007, in Mainieri’s first season as the LSU head coach.
“I’ve had more fun days at the ballpark, that’s for sure,” Mainieri said, shaking his head and exhaling. “This game, I’ve been in it a long time. It never seems to surprise me. Like I told the kids, just when you think you’ve got this game figured out, it’ll jump up and bite you.”
LSU (8-2) entered the weekend series with a seven-game winning streak and had allowed 26 runs all season. Earlier this week, Mainieri received a text from Southern coach Chris Crenshaw, who apologized for not playing better after Southern lost by 15 runs to LSU on Wednesday. Mainieri told him not to apologize. He understood.
Two days later, LSU quickly felt the other side of a blowout as Oral Roberts, which recorded three hits while getting shut out in its last game, scored more runs against LSU than anyone had in two decades. LSU last surrendered more than 20 runs in 2001 against Ole Miss, when the Rebels scored 23.
“One day you can play so well and feel like you’re making enormous progress,” Mainieri said. “And then all of sudden, one day everything goes south on you.”
Oral Roberts (3-6) scored eight runs in the first inning against ace pitcher Jaden Hill. The junior right-hander had allowed four hits this season. He gave up four straight hits to begin the game as Oral Roberts sat on his fastball.
Hill struggled with his command once he turned to his off-speed pitches, throwing 16 strikes and 13 balls. Oral Roberts led 5-0 before Mainieri pulled him with one out and the bases loaded.
“The longer the inning got,” Mainieri said, “he just started to get fatigued.”
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Hill walked off the field with his head lowered. Mainieri said he later put his arm around Hill in the dugout and told him, “Hey, Momma said there would be days like this.” Hill had thrown 21⅔ consecutive scoreless innings over the past two seasons.
“He can’t make more out of it than one outing,” Mainieri said. “Nobody wants to do well more than he does. Today just wasn’t his day. I’m certain he’ll bounce back.”
Freshman right-hander Theo Millas nearly escaped the first inning without allowing another run, but Oral Roberts second baseman Ryan Cash, already batting for the second time, hit a fly ball to deep center field. Freshman Brody Drost missed the catch. Three runs scored.
LSU initially rallied and cut the lead to 8-7, but Oral Roberts scored 11 runs in the fourth inning. LSU changed pitchers three times during the frame. Oral Roberts nearly batted around twice and recorded nine hits. Mainieri rubbed his forehead as desperate yells of “Geaux Tigers” rang from the right-field bleachers.
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LSU trailed 19-7 by the end of the fourth inning, its largest deficit through four innings since Cal State Fullerton led 19-5 at the 1994 College World Series.
Oral Roberts scored another three runs, all unearned, and though freshman pitcher Michael Fowler finally stopped the onslaught, holding Oral Roberts to one hit over the last four innings, LSU chilled at the plate.
At one point, Oral Roberts sophomore pitcher Evan Kowalski retired 11 straight batters. LSU didn’t put another runner in scoring position until the ninth inning.
“The game humbled us today,” junior designated hitter Cade Beloso said. “Credit to them, they hit the ball.”
As Oral Roberts caught the final out, LSU’s players emptied the dugout and returned to their locker room. There, Mainieri emphasized the humbling and sometimes unpredictable nature of baseball. He told them to forget about the outcome. Teams have lost big and won the next two games of a series before, like LSU will try to the rest of the weekend. One game, no matter the outcome, wouldn’t define their season.
“Fortunately for us,” Mainieri said, “it only counts as one loss.”
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