BASEBALL: LSU captures SEC tourney title over Vandy

HOOVER, Ala. — LSU coach Paul Mainieri told his team there was only one way to win five consecutive games in the Southeastern Conference tournament: One at a time.

The top-seeded Tigers responded by surviving all of those must-win games. Blake Dean drove in three runs and Ryan Byrd pitched seven strong innings to lift LSU to a 6-2 victory over Vanderbilt Sunday to cap that resilient run and capture a second straight SEC tournament championship.

“I knew that our kids would not give up,” Mainieri said. “I told the kids after the first game if you think of it in terms of having to win five in a row, that’s just overwhelming. Just go out there and play one good solid game and deal with the next one after that.”

The approach was simple and effective just like the formula of strong pitching and defense and opportunistic hitting that helped LSU (46-16) rebound from the opening loss to Vandy (34-25).

The result was SEC tournament title No. 8 for the Tigers. They’re the first team to repeat since Alabama in 2002 and 2003.

It seemed an improbable championship matchup with LSU’s opening loss and Vandy squeaking in as the No. 8 seed, but the Commodores were strong once again at Regions Park. They wound up making their fourth trip to the championship game in six seasons and are hoping that will be enough to land an NCAA regional invitation on Monday.

Coach Tim Corbin wasn’t sure where his team stood after failing to secure the league’s automatic bid.

“I don’t have any expectations,” Corbin said. “I thought we had to win this thing to give ourselves a shot. I just don’t know. It’s too close to call.”

The Tigers had no such uncertainty. They were awarded a regional host site before game’s end Sunday afternoon, along with two other SEC teams, Florida and Mississippi. LSU went on from the SEC tournament last year to make it to the College World Series in Omaha, and a return visit wouldn’t surprise Corbin.

“In my opinion, that’s an Omaha team,” he said.

Dean didn’t come up with any hits but he didn’t waste any scoring chances either. His RBIs came on two sacrifices and a run-scoring ground out.

“When he does that it’s by design,” Mainieri said. “This kid is not only a great hitter, but he’s the smartest hitter we have on this team. He always knows the situation.”

The Tigers’ designated hitter, last year’s tournament Most Valuable Player, had only one RBI in the previous five tourney games.

Leon Landry had two doubles, a single and a pair of runs scored for LSU. Freshman Mikie Mahtook had his 10th hit and third RBI of the tournament and was named MVP.

“I couldn’t have dreamed it up any better than this,” Mahtook said. “I’m just really happy to be in this position.”

The Tigers erased most of the drama in the finale with a pair of runs in both the fourth and fifth innings and no pitching breakdowns.

Byrd (1-0) more than made it hold up for his first win of the season. He had only pitched 17 innings in 10 appearances all season, including two starts.

Byrd allowed five hits and two runs, both on solo homers. Mainieri sent him back out in the eighth to give the chance for fans to applaud his performance, but he didn’t throw another pitch.

“I was pretty fired up for this game,” Byrd said. “How could you not be: Going out there for your team with a championship on the line.”

Buzzy Haydel pitched the final two innings for the Tigers.

Curt Casali led off the seventh with a home run for the Commodores, who rebounded strongly after losing their final four regular-season games. Steven Liddle also homered in the fourth.

LSU pitchers only gave up 13 earned runs in six tournament games, including strong performances from Daniel Bradshaw, Nolan Cain and Byrd. The group accounted for three SEC wins during the regular season and matched that number in the tournament.

“This championship was won because of our pitching staff,” Mainieri said.

 

John Zenor/The Associated Press