Tigers’ Nola outduels Belcher as LSU takes opener 5-2

Special to The StateApril 27, 2013 

The South Carolina bats couldn’t muster much against LSU sophomore ace Aaron Nola (8-0) as the Gamecocks dropped Friday’s series opener 5-2 in Baton Rouge.

Shortstop Joey Pankake launched a solo home run on the first pitch of the ninth inning to close the gap, but it wasn’t enough to keep Nola from firing his third consecutive complete game for second-ranked LSU (39-4, 16-3 SEC), limiting the Gamecocks (31-12, 11-8) to six hits.

Four of the six hits came from Pankake, first baseman LB Dantzler and third baseman Chase Vergason. The rest of the lineup combined to go 2-for-21.

“He’s as good as advertised, their team is as good as advertised, (LSU) coach (Paul) Mainieri has a special team and that’s a special Friday night guy,” said South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook.

For a moment, Gamecocks starter Nolan Belcher looked as if he was going to match Nola’s efforts.

“Nolan battled and tried to keep us in the game, but he didn’t have his normal command,” Holbrook said.

Belcher seemed locked in after giving up a leadoff double to LSU designated hitter Sean McMullen in the first inning.

He made the SEC’s leading hitter, LSU freshman Alex Bregman, look foolish by waving feebly at strike three. He made Raph Rhymes, the NCAA’s reigning batting champ, suffer the same fate an inning later.

Belcher retired five consecutive batters after the McMullen double, three by strikeout. Then the wheels momentarily fell off with two outs in the second frame.

The senior southpaw who had walked five batters in 74 innings coming into the contest issued free passes to LSU juniors Ty Ross and JaCoby Jones, each of whom were hovering around the Mendoza line. The Tigers made him pay.

LSU sophomore outfielder Jared Foster smacked a single to right field, loading the bases for McMullen. McMullen wasted no time, sending the first pitch he saw through the right side of the infield to score Ross and Jones.

“He was missing arm-side a lot,” Holbrook said. “They started sitting on his changeup because he couldn’t get his fastball in. Nolan has to get his fastball in to make the changeup effective against a team like that.”

LSU chased Belcher in the sixth inning. He finished with four walks, four earned runs and four strikeouts. But the Gamecocks were still in striking distance when he left and they had their chances against Nola.

The Gamecocks’ best chance may have come in the second inning, when center fielder Tanner English followed Connor Bright’s two-out single with a sinking liner to center field that LSU freshman Mark Laird made an ill-fated diving attempt at.

The ball snaked under Laird’s glove and rolled to the wall. Bright scored easily and English was off to the races. He was chugging toward the plate and would’ve pulled the Gamecocks within a run had Bregman not made a perfect throw to Ross at the plate.

But that’s precisely what Bregman did. The throw was on the money to Ross, who made a nice scoop in time to beat a sliding English for the third out.

Holbrook had no second thoughts about sending English.

“You’ve got to send him,” Holbrook said. “There’s two outs, we have a chance to score another run. … Scoring opportunities are few and far between against a guy like that.”

The series resumes at 7:30 Saturday. Holbrook said he’s considering dropping leadoff hitter Graham Saiko down in the order after his struggles continued with an 0-for-4 night.

“(LSU has) got a good group over there. We’ll have to fight a little bit harder, scratch a little bit harder tomorrow, get some breaks to go our way and see if we can come out on the other side of the score.”

BOX SCORE: LSU 5, South Carolina 2

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