BATON ROUGE, La. — All it took was one pitch Saturday to see LSU baseball’s most potent slugger is officially back.
In his first week back from an oblique injury that kept him on the bench for nine games, sophomore preseason All-America center fielder Zach Watson homered on the first pitch he saw Saturday, leading off the first inning for the Tigers and setting the tone for a 5-1 victory over Hawaii. With the win, LSU improved to 10-6 this season and gives itself a chance to win the series against Hawaii on Sunday.
Watson’s home run was his first since June 19 against Oregon State in the 2017 College World Series. The outfielder hammered 9 homers as a freshman in 2017, good for third on the team. Since returning from injury on Tuesday, Watson is hitting 7 for 19 (.368) with 4 runs and 2 RBI.
“When I tried him at leadoff during fall practice, I thought maybe he might ambush a fastball and lead off a game with a home run,” LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said of Watson. “He never did it in fall practice. And he never did it in the early preseason. He finally did it today. That was what I had envisioned that he might be able to give us a quick 1-0 lead with one swing. That’s what he did. Maybe he can do it another day.”
Watson wasn’t the only fixture in LSU’s offense Saturday. Freshman shortstop Hal Hughes drove in a run in the second inning with a two-out RBI triple down the first-base line. Playing first base for the first time in his LSU career, senior Austin Bain continued the offensive attack with an RBI single in the third inning, building off his first-inning double, his team-leading seventh of the season.
Catcher Hunter Feduccia provided the biggest blast of the evening later in the third, smacking a 2-run home run into the right-field bleachers to give LSU a 5-0 lead. The home run was Feduccia’s second of the year and tied him for the LSU team high with 11 RBI.
Despite the early offensive blitzkrieg, LSU’s offense slowed in the later innings. The Tigers hit 3 for 11 with runners on base and 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position Saturday, continuing a disconcerting weekend trend. Still, LSU’s offense adhered to its game plan better Saturday than it did in the loss Friday. Mainieri said he wanted the Tigers to push the ball up the middle or opposite field against Hawaii’s pitching, which the Tigers did on six of their seven hits.
“Before the game, we pretty much just crushed oppo, oppo, oppo,” Watson said. “Seeing these lefties, all these people throwing breaking balls outside the plate, you’ve really got to think opposite field. If they jam you in, tip your hats to them. But sometimes you’re going to catch up to that one when they jam you in.”
As for the pitching…
Starting pitcher Caleb Gilbert pitched his way into and out of danger. The junior allowed 4 hits and walked 3 in 5 innings, but worked his way to a scoreless outing behind a couple of double plays and some strong situational pitching. The Rainbow Warriors batted 1 for 10 against Gilbert with runners on base, and 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position.
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After he completed 5 innings, Gilbert left the game surprisingly early, having thrown 65 pitches. His velocity dipped a bit in his final two innings, which could’ve been the cause of the switch. In the second inning, Gilbert was hit on the inside of his push-off foot with a comeback line drive but stayed in the game after inspection from the training staff.
Gilbert explained postgame that his foot swelled up on impact and he had to have it taped tightly between innings. He said he wanted to stay in the game to help his team win, but the pain rose to a point where he couldn’t generate power off the mound and found himself throwing entirely with his arm, creating the loss in velocity.
“It makes no sense how that was possible to me,” Gilbert said of the ball hitting his back foot. “But it happened. It swung around I guess. It just smoked me. I have no idea. The funny thing is, I looked over at Bain and was like ‘Dude, I didn’t know you were playing first base tonight.’ He was like ‘You’ve already thrown two pickoffs to me last inning.’ We got a laugh out of that.”
LSU replaced Gilbert with sophomore right-hander Matthew Beck, who threw two scoreless innings with 3 strikeouts. He got into a bit of trouble in the seventh, as a fielder’s choice, a single and a walk loaded the bases. But Beck worked his way out of it, getting Hawaii’s No. 2 hitter Dustin Demeter to ground out to first base to end the threat.
The nightmare start to sophomore right-hander Todd Peterson’s 2018 season continued in the eighth inning. Formerly LSU’s Sunday starter, Peterson has been relegated to a mid-inning bullpen role and struggled again with that Saturday. He faced four batters, allowing 2 doubles and a run as his season ERA rose to 7.53.
Peterson was replaced by junior Taylor Petersen, who finished off the game unscathed.
What’s next for LSU baseball?
The LSU baseball team and the Rainbow Warriors meet again on Sunday for the rubber match of this three-game series. Action is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. CT and will be available to stream online through the SEC Network+ and WatchESPN.
Freshman Ma’Khail Hilliard will make the first start of his LSU baseball career for the Tigers. Fellow freshman Nick Storz was initially supposed to start, but his LSU debut will have to wait. Storz didn’t suffer an injury setback, but Mainieri said he didn’t think Storz was 100 percent healthy yet and didn’t want to expose the freshman before he was ready. Hilliard hasn’t allowed a run in 12 innings pitched in 2018.