Without exaggerating a bit, LSU’s Mason Katz summed up how the Tigers’ series against Georgia wound up Sunday afternoon at Alex Box Stadium.
“Raph (Rhymes) is going to get a hit 50% of the time,” Katz said.
Lately, it seems like Rhymes had come through even more than that – especially with a chance to drive in runs.
But with a perfect opportunity to add a third chapter of comeback magic to the Tigers’ 2012 season, Rhymes did something out of the ordinary.
The LSU hit machine struck out on a full-count pitch from Georgia reliever Earl Daniels with the bases loaded, deflating a raucous Box crowd as the Bulldogs salvaged a 5-3 victory on a day of frustration for the third-ranked Tigers’ offense.
Rhymes was ahead in the count 3-and-1 before Daniels snapped off back-to-back curve balls, the first called for strike two and the second missing his bat.
Something that hasn’t happened much for Rhymes, who is hitting .500.
“He’s having such an incredible season,” said Katz, who walked to load the bases right before Rhymes came up. “He was in a spot when the kid threw his best pitches and got him out. It was a tough spot: Bases loaded, 3-1 count and the kid had thrown two curveballs for balls to walk me. Then he lays a curve ball in there for a strike and has the confidence to throw another one. As a hitter you’re not expecting that.”
Despite the loss – just the Tigers’ second in 12 SEC home games this season – LSU (35-10, 14-7) claimed the series with stirring comeback wins in the first two contests. Those two wins, coupled with Kentucky losing two of three games at Vanderbilt and surging South Carolina sweeping Alabama, create a three-way tie for the SEC lead with three weekends to play.
All of that seemed of little solace to Paul Mainieri, whose team finished 14-4 in April to vault into the upper echelon of the league race.
“We had two wonderful wins this weekend, but (Sunday) we let one get away,” Mainieri said.
“(Georgia) came out and played with a lot more energy than we did. I think this was one we let get away that I hope doesn’t come back to haunt us.”
What haunted the Tigers Sunday was one big inning by Georgia (25-20, 9-12).
The Bulldogs did most of their damage with four runs in the fourth inning, anchored by the first of freshman Justin Bryan’s two home runs on the day.
Similarly to the series opener against LSU ace Kevin Gausman, Georgia got to LSU’s Aaron Nola with three consecutive softly hit singles to scratch out one run, trimming a 2-0 Tigers’ lead in half.
After Peter Verdin poked a soft liner to right field to chase in Hunter Cole, Verdin broke for second base. Tigers’ catcher Ty Ross threw down to second base and Brett DeLoach dashed home on the back end of a double steal that knotted the score 2-2.
The tie didn’t last long as Bryan jumped on a Nola fast ball and jacked it into the left-field bleachers for a 4-2 Bulldogs’ lead.
“The first couple they blooped out there, but on the home run, I made a mistake and left a ball where he could hit it,” Nola said after falling to 5-2. “It wasn’t the worst pitch I’ve ever thrown. It was at his knees and he got a good swing on it. He just beat me.”
That was the last run Nola allowed, but his day ended with two outs in the fifth after he had allowed 10 hits. Georgia’s offense rattled LSU’s three starting pitchers for 27 hits in 15.2 innings.
But the Tigers’ bullpen picked the starters up Sunday as had been the case all weekend. Georgia’s only other run came when Bryan jolted a Kurt McCune offering out of the ballpark in the eighth inning. McCune surrendered two more hits with two outs in that frame, but Nick Rumbelow came on to retire Conor Welton on a ground ball to shortstop Austin Nola and then retired the Bulldogs in order in the ninth.
That kept LSU in striking range, but the Tiger bats never quite came around.
Katz scooted home with LSU’s first two runs, the first on a wild pitch in the first inning and the second on the catcher, DeLoach’s errant throw when Georgia had Katz in a rundown when he broke on a ball in the dirt that didn’t get far enough away.
Ross got a run back quickly after the Bulldogs jumped in front when he jerked the first pitch he got from Luke Crumley out of the park for a solo homer, closing the gap to 4-3.
After that, though, the final five innings were utter frustration and a series of missed chances for the Tigers.
Crumley got through the fourth inning without any more damage when Katz slapped the first pitch after an Arby Fields’ infield single right to shortstop Kyle Farmer for an easy fielder’s choice.
In the next three innings, two double plays, Tyler Moore getting gunned down at second base on a ball he smacked off the right-field wall in the fifth and an ill-advised break for third base by Jordy Snikeris in the sixth erased a handful of chances and sent the game to the eighth inning with Georgia clinging to the 5-3 edge.
“The problem (Sunday) is we just couldn’t muster enough offensively,” Mainieri said.
“We just couldn’t get a lot of good at-bats going.”
After rallying to take the lead in the eighth inning the last two nights, the Tigers went quietly on Sunday, pinning their hopes on the ninth inning. Those hopes started to grow legs with one out when Tyler Hanover rolled a single through the left side against left-hander Chase Hawkins.
Daniels came in and struck out JaCoby Jones, but then then lost track of the strike zone and walked Fields and Katz on five pitches each to load the bases.
Katz had clouted a grand slam on Saturday and was in position to take a potential game-changing hack Sunday when he got ahead 3-and-1. But Daniels threw a curve ball out of the zone instead of the fast ball Katz was expecting.
“I don’t know how I laid off of it,” Katz said. “I was saying in my head ‘Hit the ball as hard as you can.’ ”
He took ball four and passed the torch to Rhymes, who also got to 3-and-1 before Daniels came back with the two curves to strike out the country’s top hitter – only the eighth time he has struck out all season in 170 plate appearances.
A frustrating end to a frustrating day in the batter’s box for the Tigers.
“We have to be more consistent than we were (Sunday),” Katz said.
“It’s tough to do what we did the last two nights three times in a row. They got us this time.”
Georgia snapped LSU’s 14-game winning streak at the Box, but lost a series to the Tigers for the third time in four years. The Tigers have won all four SEC series at home this season and six in a row dating back to last season.
“You always go into the weekend with the idea of winning two, and if you can get all three, that’s a plus,” Katz said. “It’s tough to look at the positives right now because we’re all upset, but we won another SEC series and that’s the step we needed to make this weekend.”
The Tigers are back in action Tuesday when Tulane (29-15) visits for a 6:30 p.m. contest. LSU heads to Ole Miss (28-16, 10-11) next weekend.
SERIES WRAP: Georgia 5, LSU 3
VIDEO: Tigers look toward positives
VIDEO: Katz on tough loss, thoughts on series
VIDEO: Mainieri on loss to Georgia
GAME 2: More magic, another win
GAME 1: In the nick of time