HOOVER, Ala. — LSU’s Anthony Ranaudo let coach Paul Mainieri know the night before that he was ready and willing to close out the team’s latest Southeastern Conference tournament title run.
The Tigers’ ace delivered a clutch relief performance and Tyler Hanover came through with a two-out RBI single in the top of the 11th inning to propel LSU to a 4-3 victory over Alabama Sunday and its third consecutive SEC tournament championship.
Ranaudo pitched three hitless innings and finished off the Crimson Tide with two strikeouts and a groundout in the 11th. Good thing Mainieri got his message Saturday night.
“I texted him last night and just said, ‘If you need me I want the ball at the end of the game,'” said Ranaudo, who won LSU’s opener and had five strikeouts in the finale. “Fortunately I got a chance to go out there and throw again and I just did what I could for the team. Everybody backed me up and we came up with clutch hits at the right time.”
The Tigers (40-20) are the first team to win three straight tournament titles since Alabama (37-22) did it from 1995-97 and the first to do it under the current format. It was also the first time the championship game went to extra innings.
No eighth seed had won before LSU did it in a matchup with No. 7 seed Alabama in a title game of underdogs that have gotten hot at the right time.
The Tigers had lost 13 of 15 before turning it around in the final regular season series with Mississippi State.
“I never lost faith with these kids through the tough times we had earlier,” Mainieri said. “It was only a matter of time before the breaks started to go our way. This week we really put it together in every phase of the game.”
Matt Gaudet singled with one out in the 11th off closer/third baseman Jake Smith, then Johnny Dishon popped up. Mikie Mahtook reached on a throwing error by Tide shortstop Josh Rutledge, who made a nice play to get to the ball.
Then Hanover drove a single into left field for his third hit to bring home Fury, who was pressed into action because Mainieri had subbed two more likely runners already. Fury wound up with his first run of the season.
“He spends the whole game warming up pitchers in the bullpen and now he gets to tell his grandchildren he scored the winning run in the SEC championship game,” Mainieri said.
The teams had to sit through two weather delays totaling nearly 2½ hours before finishing it off. The second came just as it was about to go into the bottom of the ninth tied at 3-3.
But both left with plenty of added confidence going into the NCAA regionals after the postseason seemed much less certain a week or so ago. The Tide was on an eight-game winning streak before Sunday’s loss.
“We’re going into our regional right now with a lot of confidence, and we can win it,” Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. “We can go anywhere in the country and win if we perform the way we did in the SEC tournament.”
Ranaudo (5-2) celebrated the win by slamming his glove into the infield grass before getting buried under a pileup of teammates. He even had two teammates step on his left, nonthrowing hand during the celebration but said he was fine.
The defending national champion Tigers squeaked into the field and went 4-0 before earning their 10th SEC tournament title. The Tide had been 7-0 in championship games — three of the wins coming against LSU.
LSU shortstop Austin Nola was named MVP.
Ranaudo got Smith, who earlier delivered the game-tying hit, to pop up to right field with runners on first and third in the bottom of the 10th.
“I just kind of lost my stuff,” Ranaudo said. “I realized that I just needed to compete and do what I had to for the team knowing the runner on third base was the winning run.”
Smith allowed only one run in the final three innings after taking over for Tide ace Jimmy Nelson, who tossed a complete game against Auburn in the tournament opener and went two scoreless innings in his second appearance.
Alabama had rallied from a 3-0 deficit, finally getting to LSU starter Daniel Bradshaw with one out in the seventh. Andrew Miller lifted an RBI single to center on the only pitch for reliever Chris Cotton, who was lifted for Paul Bertuccini.
Alabama pulled even with Smith’s two-out RBI single to right in the eighth inning making it 3-3. Ross Wilson started it with a walk, then Clay Jones singled off Paul Bertuccini — all with two outs.
“The game fell right. It worked out,” Gaspard said. “We put Nelson in when we were down by two, but he was able to hang in there and give us a chance to get back in it.”
John Zenor/The Associated Press