BATON ROUGE — Suddenly, LSU is a road team, a fog team and a RPI team.
And on Sunday it could be a championship team.
All in five days.
All in Hoover, Alabama, which it basically takes over every May at the Southeastern Conference Tournament much like it does every now and then in Omaha, Nebraska, at the College World Series in June.
"Throughout this entire week, regardless of all the ups and downs that we've had this year, we've showed that we can play with anybody, and I'm excited to see what we can do going forward," said LSU pitcher Zack Hess, who has been mostly down in recent weeks, on the SEC Network after the game.
But Hess threw a one-hitter over seven innings with seven strikeouts on three days' rest to beat No. 2 RPI Arkansas, 2-1, Saturday night to put the No. 8 seed Tigers (37-24) into the SEC Tournament title game against No. 2 seed Ole Miss (45-15). The game starts at 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.
Ole Miss will pitch sophomore right-hander Houston Roth (5-0, 4.75 ERA). LSU coach Paul Mainieri — as frequently has been the case this week — said he does not know whom he will start. Freshman Ma'Khail Hilliard (9-5, 3.79 ERA) just threw 97 pitches on Wednesday in the 4-3 loss to Florida.
LSU is in the SEC Tournament final for a league record 19th time and has won it 12 times, including last year, in 2014, 2013, 2010, 2009 and 2008.
But it was not expected this year.
The Tigers (15-15 in the SEC regular season for a seventh place tie) arrived at the SEC Tournament on Monday squarely on the NCAA postseason bubble as one of the worst road teams in the nation with a 4-14 record. As a result, LSU's RPI was in the 40s, which would keep it out of the NCAA postseason unless it did something quick.
And LSU proceeded to double its number of road wins in five days with four — 8-5 over Mississippi State on Tuesday, 6-4 over South Carolina on Thursday (after a 4-3 loss to Florida on Wednesday), 11-0 over Florida on Saturday morning in the continuation of a game that started Friday but was halted by fog around midnight, and 2-1 over Arkansas later Saturday.
State's RPI was in the 20s, and South Carolina's in the 30s. But then it was "Rip RPI" Saturday as Florida was No. 1 and Arkansas was No. 2. Suddenly, LSU is No. 33 in one RPI listing.
"I think it's a testament to the character of the guys we have on this team," said Hess, who improved to 7-5 on the season with his first win since April 13. "There's not any quit in these guys, and I couldn't be prouder to be a part of this."
LSU will try to win its seventh SEC Tournament title since 2008 — all under Mainieri, who improved to an uncanny 35-7 in this tournament for a .833 winning percentage.
"I have no idea what happens here, but Coach Mainieri has the ability to get the most out of his teams, especially at the end of the year," Hess said. "It just seems like every year something special happens for us in Hoover."
Suddenly, LSU could be playing its way from a No. 3 to a No. 2 seed in a NCAA Regional next week on the road.
The Tigers also dealt with a weather delay in their second game Saturday after a 3:40 p.m. start. Rain stopped the game in the third inning at 4:19 p.m. with no score. Shortly after it resumed at 5:45 p.m., Hess made his only mistake of the day. Jared Gates hit it over the fence in right-center field for a 1-0 Arkansas lead.
Hess recovered quickly, though, and the Hogs (39-18) were not heard from again. Then Brandt Broussard opened the LSU sixth with a single. And Zach Watson homered to left field to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
Nick Bush relieved Hess in the eighth and allowed no runs on two hits for his second save. Arkansas starter Isaiah Campbell took the loss to fall to 4-6 after allowing four hits and two runs in five innings with seven strikeouts and a walk.
The Tigers took a 10-0 lead on Florida with seven runs in the bottom of the sixth inning on Friday night before the fog rolled in. The Tigers had runners on second and third when the game was postponed. On Saturday morning, Watson delivered an RBI infield single for the 11-0 lead after six.
Florida failed to score in the top of the seventh off freshman right-hander Devin Fontenot, who struck out three in the inning, and the game was called as the Gators could not get within 10 as of the seventh. Florida (42-17) lost for the sixth time in seven games and was eliminated. It was LSU's first win over the Gators since a 10-6 victory in the series finale at Florida last season.
The Tigers had lost two straight to Florida in the national championship, best-of-three series in Omaha, Nebraska, last season, 4-3 and 6-1, and fell, 4-3, here on Wednesday. LSU had lost six of seven to Florida going back to the 2016 SEC Tournament before Saturday.
Ole Miss eliminated No. 11-seed Texas A&M (39-20), 2-1, earlier Saturday in a game that started at noon.
"I'm so proud of our guys," Mainieri said after the first win Saturday. "They came back out here this morning and picked up where they left off last night. This makes for a long day, but our players can handle it. They’re young, they have a lot energy, and we’ll do what we have to do.”
Hess showed some youthful vigor Saturday night. He had just thrown 50 pitches on Tuesday in relief after he gave up six hits and five earned runs in three innings in an 11-4 loss on May 17 at Auburn while throwing 83 pitches. On Tuesday, he was not much better, allowing three hits and two runs with four walks and no strikeouts in three innings. He threw 50 pitches.
The Tigers took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning Friday against Florida starter Jack Leftwich when right fielder Antoine Duplantis lined an RBI single and a throwing error by Gator third baseman Jonathan India allowed two unearned runs to score.
LSU scored seven runs in the sixth inning before the fog against relievers Hunter McMullen and Jordan Butler. A pair of two-run singles by Duplantis and Daniel Cabrera highlighted an inning that also included two Florida errors, a run-scoring wild pitch and a run-scoring passed ball. Duplantis finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs and two runs cored.
LSU starting pitcher Matthew Beck of Alexandria fired four shutout innings Friday, allowing three hits with four walks and three strikeouts for the win to improve to 3-1. Reliever Cam Sanders threw two dominating innings, retiring six of the seven batters he faced while recording four strikeouts.
Leftwich was charged with three runs — one earned — in five innings with two hits, one walk and seven strikeouts. He took the loss to fall to 4-5.
Mainieri took a fun approach to the Friday game as his original lineup card featured pitcher Todd Peterson in the cleanup spot at designated hitter in light of his game-winning, two-run double Thursday night in the 6-4 win over South Carolina. It was the first at-bat of Peterson's college career and maybe since grade school.