Zack Hess let out a roar as he glared at in the direction of a recoiling Cooper Johnson and bolted towards the LSU dugout.
Hess had just blown a 95 mph fastball past Johnson to strand the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a one-run game. He did the same to Thomas Dillard three batters earlier with Josh Hall standing on third base representing the tying run. Ole Miss couldn’t catch up to Hess’ heater, squandering an opportunity in its penultimate at bat.
Johnson demolished a Hess fastball in the 7th well over the left field wall to make it a 4-3 game. The second time, Hess bested him with a healthier diet of breaking balls and finished him off with a fastball.
“I was looking for a fastball,” Johnson said. “More off-speed pitches. I took a big swing at the first one. Then, I tried to shorten up and put I the other way and it didn’t happen.”
Missed opportunities are what branded the Rebels 8-3 loss to LSU on Friday night. Ole Miss was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. An unearned run on a Kevin Graham error in the sixth afforded LSU an extra layer of cushion and the one-run lead in the eighth.
Ole Miss helped dig its own grave with a string of poor at bats in the top of the eighth and LSU was happy to plant the tombstone. The game spiraled out of control in the bottom half of the frame with a Tigers plating five runs highlighted by back-to-back home runs.
Ole Miss stranded 10 runners in this game, made two errors and came unglued late. It put the first two runners on in the bottom of the second to apply pressure on LSU starter Ma’Khail Hilliard. The Rebels netted just one run and Hilliard retired the next nine he faced, handing Hess the baseball in the baseball in the 5th. Four thru six in the Ole Miss order – the heart of its lineup comprised of Thomas Dillard, Cole Zabowski and Kevin Graham – went a combined 1-for-11.
“We have a pretty awesome offense when guys are swinging confident,” Johnson said. “Obviously, it is a different feeling when guys are swinging good and putting good at bats together. I think we just need to get back to thoughts becoming things. We have to believe we are good.”
Ole Miss spotted Will Ethridge an early 1-0 lead in the second. Ethridge coughed it up in the bottom half of the inning by way of a Chris Reid single and a Gavin Dugas double. Ethridge was not sharp, but provided the Rebels length, going seven innings, allowing four runs, three earned, on seven hits with four strikeouts and no walks.
“I was a little shaky and didn’t make pitches when I needed to,” Ethridge said. “We didn’t do the things we need to do to go out and get a win.”
Ethridge nearly stranded a pair of singles in the third to keep the scored tied but was unable to retire Josh Smith, who swatted a first pitch fastball into center field to plate both runners and give the Tigers a 3-1 lead.
“He wasn’t his sharpest tonight, but he was really tough,” head coach Mike Bianco said. “The at bat that was almost the ballgame was Smith’s in the third. I am kicking myself for not walking Smith. The ball was supposed to be off the plate but Will was sweating so much the ball slipped back inside. Smith showed why he was so good.”
Ole Miss put the first two aboard in the fifth with singles from Anthony Servideo and Jacob Adams, ousting Hilliard in favor of Hess. Ryan Olenek hit into a 6-4-3 double play on the first pitch Hess offered and Grae Kessinger struck out on four pitches. The sequence netted just one run.
Hess’ four innings of one-run ball in relief of Hilliard is what fueled LSU to this win, the eighth inning theatrics aside. Hess has been LSU’s Friday night starter for the past two seasons. He was moved to the bullpen on Wednesday. Aside from a rehab stint earlier in the year, it was the junior’s first real appearance out of the pen in over two years.
“I was surprised with how early he came in,” Bianco said. “It was obviously the right move by Coach Mainairi. They knew it was a big opportunity for us to get back in the game and was able to get out of it there. His stuff was electric.”
The bottom of the eighth was the final nail in the coffin. Miller nearly cleaned up an inherited mess from Tyler Myers’ mess with just one run of damage taxed to the Rebels. Myers allowed two singles to the only two hitters he faced. Miller traded two outs for a run. Olenek, who was playing third after Tyler Keenan was pinch run for, dropped a Daniel Cabrera pop up in foul ground that would’ve been the third out of the inning. The Rebels would’ve come to the plate in the ninth down 5-3. Cabrera hit a three-run homer one pitch later. Drew Bianco made it back-to-back with a pinch-hit to left.
“Probably not how you draw it up,” Bianco said. “I don’t know if I can put it into words. It is one of the reasons why (Drew Bianco) doesn’t play for us. You have nights like this where you lose don’t feel too good, but he hit a home run. I guess in a little while, I will be proud as a dad, but I am disappointed in the way we played tonight.”
Ole Miss again left the bases loaded to end it in the ninth.