By NICK COLE / Nashville Tennessean
HOOVER, Ala. – Any momentum the Vanderbilt baseball team had from Tuesday's dramatic, 3-2 win over Tennessee was long gone by Wednesday morning.
The Commodores and their No. 6 RPI (ratings percentage index) fell 11-1 to No. 3 seed LSU and its No. 16 RPI in a game at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium called in the bottom of the seventh inning due to the tournament's, 10-run mercy rule.
Vanderbilt (41-17) plays No. 2 seed Ole Miss (40-17) at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in an elimination game after the Rebels lost 2-1 to No. 7 seed Arkansas Wednesday afternoon.
The Commodores' path to a third SEC Tournament championship now runs through the loser's bracket. Vanderbilt will need three consecutive wins— one per day beginning Thursday— to reach Sunday's championship game.
LSU (41-14-1), on the other hand, is in much better shape and will play at 4:30 p.m. Thursday against Arkansas (37-21) with its ace on the mound in junior right-hander Aaron Nola (9-1, 1.42 ERA). If the Tigers win that game, they will get Friday off and advance to a noon semifinal on Saturday.
It was LSU sophomore shortstop Alex Bregman— a 2013 All-American and reigning national freshman of the year— that gave the Commodores pitching staff fits Wednesday.
The sophomore collected three of the Tigers' 15 hits, including a home run and a double, while matching his career best against conference opponents with five RBIs.
"You feel hitters like that when they get into the batter's box. They have a different ability and a different presence about them," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "He certainly deserves all of the compliments that coaches give him."
LSU coach Paul Mainieri put it more bluntly.
“His swing was just lightning,” Mainieri said. “I was scared for the health of their defensive players to be honest with you.”
Bregman delivered the big blow to the Commodores in the fourth inning, during which the Tigers broke open a 1-1 tie game with a four-run inning. Starter Jared Miller (6-2) was removed after bouts with wildness in the inning (two walks, two wild pitches), leaving a 2-1 deficit and two runners on base for reliever Hayden Stone with Bregman stepping to the plate.
With one swing of the bat against the freshman, Bregman put the Tigers up 5-1 with a three-run home run to left field.
"I saw five straight sliders and I had swung through the slider before that," Bregman said. "It was another slider down and in, and I was just fortunate to put a good swing on it."
Stone had not allowed a home run in 41 innings of relief prior to his SEC Tournament debut.
Things continued downhill from there for the Commodores, allowing runs in each of the following three innings until the game was called.
Tigers leadoff hitter Mark Laird of Monroe scored four times and second baseman Conner Hale had three hits.
"You have to credit LSU," Corbin said. "They hit the ball well, obviously. As the game progressed and as they got base runners, they took some good swings and took advantage of us."
It was LSU’s fifth straight game of 11 hits or more. Over that stretch, the Tigers have outscored opponents 67-5 – LSU’s largest combined margin of victory over five teams since the 1999 season.
“Our guys feel like they can hit with anyone,” Mainieri said.
“They took some good swings on some pitches that were in the zone today,” Miller said.
Vanderbilt's lone run came in the top of the first inning on a RBI single by Bryan Reynolds that scored Dansby Swanson off LSU starter Jared Poche.
The Commodores managed to reach base just five more times against Poche, who improved to 9-3, and had just two hits after the first inning. Poche' went all seven innings, striking out three and walking one.
"He just mixed his pitches well," Swanson said. "He stayed in the strike zone. He didn't allow us to get any opportunities off of him. He kept it down in the zone, and we couldn't put as many good swings on it as we would have liked."
It was a bit of a rebound performance against Vanderbilt for the left-hander. He suffered his first loss of the season at the hands of the Commodores on Mar. 15, surrendering four runs in 4-1/3 innings.
“I was able to go out there and throw strikes,” Poche said. “I feel anyone could pitch with a lead like that and a defense behind you.”