LSU defeated Vanderbilt, 5-4, for the SEC crown
The battle between the nation's top two teams lived up to the billing, as it took 11 innings to decide the winner. But LSU called on unlikely heroes to clinch the SEC Championship with a 5-4 victory against Vanderbilt.
HOOVER, Ala. — LSU had just one hit through the final seven frames of an extra-inning SEC Championship Game.
But the one the No. 2 Tigers got was the one that put the trophy in their hands.
With one out and a 4-4 tie in the 11th inning, Chris Sciambra sent a full-count pitch up the middle, bringing in Jared Foster to score the game-winning run against Vanderbilt, the nation’s No. 1 team.
“That’s what a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle should be,” said Mason Katz. “It’s not supposed to be a blowout. We went into 11 innings and it was a battle all day long. Either team could have won, but we held in longer and got one more clutch hit.”
That winning run couldn’t have come from a more unlikely duo. It wasn’t freshman phenom Alex Bregman that brought in the go-ahead score. It wasn’t Katz or Raph Rhymes, the 2012 SEC Player of the Year.
It was a pair of reserve outfielders that had only started a combined 35 games this season. It was Foster, a former walk-on quarterback, and it was Sciambra, the former starter that broke his neck last season.
“People wonder why I play all the guys off the bench,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “I have confidence in them and I’m not afraid to play them because they’re good ball players…I won’t hesitate to use them and expect them to get the job done. Jared Foster and Chris Sciambra are examples of this.”
That those two were the heroes Sunday seemed a fitting end to a tournament where LSU thrived on the underdog. From Tyler Moore’s game-tying hit against Alabama to freshman Hunter Newman throwing four hitless innings in the semifinal, LSU called on the backup, the reserve and the bench-player to come through.
And that’s what happened in the championship.
Foster — starting in place of an injured Mark Laird — was hit by a pitch to reach base in the 11th inning. Then he stole second to move into scoring position for Chris Sciambra, who was at the plate for the first time in the game. He fell behind in the count 0-2, then worked it full before delivering the go-ahead single.
“We wanted to be ready in the dugout at any time Coach calls on us,” Sciambra said. “We just try to stay in the game. We stay focused and try to give it our all. Everyone on the team did their job.”
Before Sciambra finally came through, he watched from the bench as the rest of the offense labored through the final innings. That LSU was even in a place to win late was a feat in itself, as the pitching staff and defense had to escape several jams to keep it close.
Clinging to a 4-2 lead in the fifth inning, Nate Fury entered for the Tigers, replacing Brent Bonvillain, who surrendered two runs on five hits in a four-inning start. Fury surrendered consecutive hits to open the frame, putting runners on the corners. LSU was able to erase one of them, as Ty Ross caught Mike Yastrzemski stealing.
But the Commodores would proceed to load the bases without putting a ball in play courtesy of a hit-by-pitch and walk. That sent Vince Conde to the plate with two outs, and he belted a shot to deep center field.
Freshman Andrew Stevenson sprinted for what seemed like miles, extended his glove at the last second and made an over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track to end the inning and preserve the lead.
“Most parks wouldn’t hold that ball,” Stevenson said of the spacious outfield at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. “So you just sit and watch it sail over the fence. But I got to go after it…We’re a solid defensive team and that helps us win ball games.”
Vanderbilt did have one rally that LSU couldn’t quite escape. The Commodores struck for a pair of runs off Nick Rumbelow in the seventh inning, but the Tigers limited the damage thanks to more Foster heroics.
With two runs already in and the bases juiced on one out, Spencer Navin floated a pop fly to right field. Zander Wiel held at third, waiting to tag for what would serve as the go-ahead run. But Foster — the former quarterback — fired a one-hopper that found Ross at the plate. Ross impersonated a brick wall, preventing Wiel from reaching the plate and kept the game even.
“When it went up, I saw Foster getting under it. I could see it happening,” Rhymes said. “I knew he was going to throw it to home plate, and I was ready to see it. He’s got a great arm, and everybody got to see it.”
From then on it was all about the pitching. Joey Bourgeois stranded a pair of runners in the eighth before surrendering a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was up to Chris Cotton, who took over for his fourth appearance of the tournament.
While his counterpart, Vanderbilt closer Brian Miller, kept LSU hitless through four innings of work, Cotton was equally dominant.
He retired each of the eight batters he faced Sunday, including the final three to clinch the championship and earn Tournament MVP.
“It’s a great feeling to win any tournament,” Cotton said. “This is the SEC Tournament, which is easily comparable to Omaha. The road will be tough ahead, but we’re going to carry on and keep it going.”
With the SEC title in hand, this LSU team has made one more stride in following in the footsteps of the 2009 National Championship team. Next comes a NCAA Regional, then a Super Regional if all goes according to plan.
The College World Series may still seem like a long way off, but it is the ultimate goal.
“This is the second time we’ve told the team we’re going to wake up and play for a championship,” Mainieri said. “When you play at LSU, that’s what you come here to do. We have 52 wins, and that’s wonderful. But we also know, that when you tell the tale of the season, it’s all about what you do in the postseason.”