Paul Skenes skipped with boyish joy onto the mound for the top of the ninth inning of LSU's opening game in the Baton Rouge regional Friday afternoon.
Collegiate Baseball's player of the year, who leads the nation in strikeouts and holds the fourth-best ERA, was about to accomplish one of the few things he had never done before, either at Air Force or LSU: throw a complete game.
After 2 hours, 40 minutes, under a blazing sun on a 91-degree day at Alex Box Stadium, the crowd rose to its feet, chanting the Skenes' name as he prepared to finish off fourth-seeded Tulane for a 7-2 win.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about it,” Skenes said, recalling his discussion with the coaching staff before the ninth. “They asked if I wanted it and I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”
He retired the side in order on a flyout, strikeout and a groundout, walking off the mound to celebrate the Tigers' victory.
LSU (44-15) will play again at 8 p.m. Saturday, facing the winner of Friday night's Oregon State-Sam Houston State game.
Instead of saving Skenes for later in the weekend, LSU coach Jay Johnson opted to keep the right-hander on schedule, throwing its ace for the first game of the regional against the Green Wave (19-41).
“He’s the best pitcher in college baseball. We’re now in postseason play, and I felt good about what he could do. It impacts us winning the game,” Johnson said. “It should help the rest of pitchers."
Skenes was masterful. He allowed two runs on seven hits, striking out 12 and walking none, saving the rest of the Tigers' pitching staff for the rest of the weekend. He threw a season-high 124 pitches.
Skenes silenced Tulane’s lineup through six innings before giving up a two-run home run to Catholic High grad Brennan Lambert in the seventh. Skenes gave up two hits in the eighth but got out of the inning unscathed. Pitching coach Wes Johnson came to Jay Johnson in the eighth and asked about going to the bullpen.
“I said, ‘No, no, no; he’s going back out there for those three hitters, and if we have traffic (on the bases), then we’ll send someone else,’ ” Johnson said. “But I didn’t feel like there was going to be traffic based on how he finished the eighth.”
The game was also still close enough — leading 6-2, LSU loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth but managed only one run — for Johnson to leave him in.
“We've been very deliberate about what games he’s gone into that 100-pitch-count range and what games he came out before that,” Johnson said. “The only decision was if (Hayden) Travinski had hit a grand slam (in the eighth), but no way were we messing around.”
Part of what allowed Skenes to throw 124 pitches was rest. He had eight days' worth after throwing 88 pitches through 3⅔ innings against Arkansas on May 25 in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Green Wave only managed to get a runner in scoring position once — in the eighth inning, when it strung together back-to-back hits.
Skenes’ outing was also highlighted by a line-drive comebacker by Jake LaPrairie, which Skenes caught between his legs and tossed to first to double off Lambert.
The Tigers were coming off an offensive lull in last week’s SEC tournament, where they struggled to cash in with runners in scoring position. They responded by playing more small ball against the Green Wave.
Center fielder Dylan Crews was 3 for 5 with an RBI, while Travinski went 2 for 3 with two walks and two RBIs. Josh Pearson had two RBIs on sacrifices.
“It’s very important, especially with runners on first and second and less than two outs, to get the runners over,” Crews said. “We’ve been working hard all week with more bunting ... Jordan (Thompson) and Gavin (Dugas) laid one down, so we’re ready to get guys over and score.”
LSU hammered Tulane starting left-hander Dylan Carmouche early with back-to-back singles by Crews and Tommy White in the bottom of the first. Crews advanced to third when Tre’ Morgan grounded into a double play, then scored on Travinski’s double.
The Tigers added two more runs in the second when Dugas singled and Brayden Jobert was hit by a pitch. Thompson laid down a bunt to advance the runners, which allowed Dugas to score on a groundout by Pearson and Jobert to score on a double by Crews.
LSU manufactured another in the bottom of the third, allowing Travinski to score from third on a groundout by Jobert to take a 4-0 lead.
After Travinski walked and Beloso singled in the fifth, right-hander Michael Lombardi took Carmouche’s place, giving up a sac fly to Dugas that scored Travinski. Beloso scored on a flyout by Pearson to make it 6-0 until Tulane’s two-run home run in the seventh made it 6-2.
Tulane made three pitching changes in the bottom of the eighth as the Tigers loaded the bases on a single and two walks, before walking in its final run.