The ninth-seeded Tigers (34-22) had the same conference record as the Bulldogs (13-17) but came in with a No. 21 RPI against the country’s No. 2 strength of schedule. Georgia came in with a No. 41 RPI ranking against the nation’s 16th-best strength of schedule while finishing eighth in the nation’s best baseball conference.
The Bulldogs could further their cause as they continue SEC Tournament play. First up will be No. 1-ranked SEC champion Arkansas (42-10) on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. The winner will face the Vanderbilt-Auburn winner at the same time on Thursday.
Georgia took Arkansas to the brink in Fayetteville in early May before losing the deciding game 5-3, and then only after starter Ryan Webb left the game with what proved to be a season-ending injury.
“I feel like if we play the same way we did the first three games we have a good chance to beat them,” said Jaden Woods, the Bulldogs’ winning pitcher Tuesday night.
Woods (4-1) got the win in relief of fellow freshman lefty Luke Wagner. Woods induced a strikeout/throw-out double play to get the Bulldogs out of a two-on, one-out jam in the fourth inning. He retired all 10 batters he faced.
So dominant was Woods with five strikeouts and no hits over 3 2/3 innings that it seemed risky when Stricklin lifted him in favor of closer Ben Harris to start the eighth inning. Stricklin had to wonder himself when Harris walked the first batter he faced on four pitches, gave up a bloop single and hit another batter to load the bases with one out. But like Wagner did when he pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, Harris came back to strike out LSU’s Zach Arnold and Drew Bianco to retire the side.
Right-hander Jack Gowen came on in the ninth to get the final three outs on high-90s fastballs and send the Bulldogs into the second round.
“We felt like the close was in the eighth inning,” Stricklin explained. “They had the top of the order up and Jaden had already faced them once. Yes, he was throwing the ball really well, but Ben is one of the best closers in the country and we needed him to get through that part. It got a little hairy, and certainly when he walks the first guy on four pitches, your gut is saying, ‘oh, no.’ But we trust Ben and that’s why we put him in there.”
The Bulldogs have Chaney Rogers to thank for giving them a lead to work with. The senior from Ringgold hit a bases-clearing double to right field in the opening frame to erase a 1-0 LSU lead and stake Georgia to a three-run lead. Rogers came to the plate only because the Tigers were unable to complete a 5-4-3 double play that allowed Riley King to reach on a fielder’s choice and scored Ben Anderson.
“When we got that one run, I think that kind of relaxed everybody; I know I relaxed in the on-deck circle,” said Rogers, a .276 hitter. “So I just got up there and put a good swing on the ball when he hung me one.”
LSU starter Landon Marceaux didn’t hang any more pitches. In fact, the Tigers ace pitched all eight innings and scattered nine hits between nine strikeouts and took the loss.
Georgia’s Wagner scattered six hits through 3 1/3 innings after pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. He got into more trouble in the fourth when the Bulldogs called on Woods to put out the fire.
With runners at first and second and one out, Woods struck out catcher Alex Milazzo and UGA catcher Fernando Gonzalez threw out Bianco at third base on the same play to end the threat.
Woods proved untouchable from there. Understandably, he said didn’t want to come out of the game in the eighth inning.
“If that was the decision that needed to be made to set the team up for success, then I was all for it,” said Woods, a freshman from Houston County. “I knew Ben was going to get out of the situation.”