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Arkansas edges LSU, Tigers fall into SEC tourney losers bracket

LSU reliever Riley Cooper threw 4.1 scoreless innings, but the Tigers couldn't produce enough offense for a miracle comeback as they lost 5-4 to Arkansas in an SEC third-round tournament game Thursday.
LSU reliever Riley Cooper threw 4.1 scoreless innings, but the Tigers couldn't produce enough offense for a miracle comeback as they lost 5-4 to Arkansas in an SEC third-round tournament game Thursday. (Courtesy of LSU Athletics)

For the first time this season, No. 5 LSU discovered what happens when ace pitcher Paul Skenes looks like anything but college baseball’s strikeout leader.

Trailing 2-0, fourth-ranked Arkansas sent Skenes to showers in a five-run fourth inning keyed by a controversial umpiring decision and the Tigers couldn’t quite recover from a three-run deficit in a 5-4 SEC tournament third-round loss Thursday in Hoover (Ala.) Metropolitan Stadium.

LSU center fielder Dylan Crews stroked a one-out ninth-inning solo homer to cut Arkansas' lead to a run.

But the Tigers (43-14) couldn’t complete the comeback as they dropped into a Friday 3 p.m. losers’ bracket elimination game vs. Texas A&M. Arkansas (41-15) advanced to a Saturday 12 noon meeting vs. the LSU/A&M winner for the right to advance to Sunday’s 2 p.m. championship game.

Skenes had a season-low three strikeouts, tied his season-high of allowing five runs and had his shortest appearance (3.2 innings) of the season (not counting his 3 innings at South Carolina cut short by a rain delay). He struggled with control from start to finish, throwing 55 strikes in 88 pitches and often falling behind in counts.

"I thought that we did a good job of just kind of manufacturing a couple of things," Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. "Paul Skenes is such a good pitcher, it's hard to get that big hit on him, and we never really got it. Things just kind of went our way there a little bit."

LSU head coach Jay Johnson said he pulled Skenes because of his high pitch count, understanding he wanted to save him for next weekend's NCAA regionals.

"He was like 38 to 40 pitches in that inning alone," Johnson said. "I can promise you if it was any other situation in any other game he would not be coming out of the game right there. That was about the max of the tipping point with Paul.

"The hope was to get to the fifth or through the fifth, and again, credit Arkansas. Those guys battled and did a nice job."

Arkansas starter Hagen Smith and reliever Hunter Hollan combined for 17 strikeouts.

"Getting strike one is probably the biggest thing, and I think that's something that me and Hagen both did pretty good," Hollan said. "Once you get strike one, it kind of opens up to where you can pitch a little bit. And you have to against a lineup like that. You can't get behind often because they're not going to miss."

LSU managed 11 hits, but seven of them were by the Tigers’ 4 and 5-hole hitters Hayden Travinski (4 of 4) and Tre’ Morgan (3 of 4).

"Smith and Hollan are the two best guys we saw all year.," Johnson said. "They have four pitches that they can execute, and it's like that's what you have to have, the pile-up strikeouts against us, and they executed very, very well. They're two of the best left-handed pitchers in college baseball."

Smith had a career-high eight strikeouts in 3.2 innings before he was pulled by Van Horn for reaching a predetermined pitch count.

Smith gave up a run in the LSU first despite striking out three batters. The Tigers produced three consecutive singles, capped by first baseman Morgan’s RBI single for a 1-0 lead.

Singles by designed hitter Travinski and Morgan opened the LSU fourth. After Smith recorded two strikeouts and walked Tigers’ second baseman Gavin Dugas, Hollan then replaced Smith. He immediately threw a wild pitch that scored Travinski for a 2-0 LSU edge.

Arkansas erased the lead in the bottom of the fourth as Skenes arguably had his worst inning of the year when threw a season-high 41 pitches.

He hit a batter, walked one and gave up three straight hits including RBI singles by Razorbacks’ third baseman Caleb Cali and second baseman Peyton Holt to tie the game at 2-2.

After Skenes managed to get two outs, he left the game with the bases full and was replaced by LSU reliever Riley Cooper.

Cooper apparently retired Arkansas designated hitter Kendall Diggs on an inning-ending pop-out. But home plate umpire Jason Bradley ruled Milazzo guilty of catcher’s interference. LSU lost a replay appeal and Diggs advanced to first as Arkansas scored the go-ahead run.

Arkansas right fielder Jace Bohrofen followed with a two-run single and the Hogs exited the inning with a 5-2 lead after left fielder Jared Wegner’s ground out.

"We get the catcher's interference call and if that doesn't happen, we're out of that," Johnson said. " Bohrofen is one of the best players in the country, and you give him a chance with a two-out RBI, and he came through."

LSU blew an opportunity to score in the sixth when Travinski and Morgan opened the inning with back-to-back singles. Yet the Razorbacks pulled off a double play.

Morgan was forced out at second base on a Jordan Thompson grounder and Hogs’ second baseman Peyton Hoyt whipped the ball to third base to nail Travinski who overran the base.

"We've never actually worked on that play," Hoyt said. "It's just one of those things you keep in your back pocket, especially as a second baseman, like you know you're not going to get the guy at first. And it was just something that I knew that I could do, and I did it, and it worked out. It was really big for us."

The Tigers picked up a run in the eighth on Thompson’s RBI but LSU had no miracles left in its bag after Crews’ solo homer in the ninth.

Wasted in the loss was Tigers’ reliever Cooper’s best outing of the season. He allowed two hits and no runs (the runs from Bohrofen two-RBI singles were charged to Skenes) and struck out seven while walking none.

"He's pitched in the College World Series before, he's pitched in regionals, super regionals multiple times, and the moment is not going to get too big for him," Johnson said of Cooper. "I didn't think it did today. He actually rose to it against one of the better teams in the country. He did a really good job."