Henry pitches LSU past Southern Miss 8-4

BATON ROUGE — Behind a solid start from freshman Cole Henry and home runs by Cade Beloso and Zach Watson, the LSU Baseball team defeated Southern Miss in the NCAA Regional winner’s bracket final, 8-4, on Saturday night at Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field.

Top-seeded LSU (39-24) advanced to the championship round on Sunday at 8 p.m. CT, when it will face the winner of No. 2 Arizona State and No. 3 Southern Miss (39-20). The Sun Devils and Golden Eagles will square off in the loser’s bracket final at 2 p.m. CT on Sunday.

Television or streaming for Sunday’s games will be announced early Sunday by the NCAA and the ESPN family of networks. The LSU Sports Radio Network broadcast will begin at 7:30 p.m. CT on Eagle 98.1 in Baton Rouge and streaming free at LSUsports.net/live.

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Beloso and Watson were among five Tigers with two hits, while the pair was joined by catcher Saul Garza with two RBI each. Zack Hess (4-5) was charged with one run on two hits with four strikeouts and a walk to earn the victory.

“This was a critical victory for us tonight,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “Everybody knew how pivotal the winner’s bracket game is. It is the difference between having to win one more or three more. Our guys were into it and gave it everything they had tonight. They whole game, they played phenomenal.”

The Tigers were the victim of three double plays in the first four frames, but led 1-0 through four innings on a solo home run by freshman designated hitter Cade Beloso. Beloso’s 10th homer of the season easily cleared the right field fence in the top of the second inning.

Meanwhile, LSU freshman righthander Cole Henry put together a terrific outing in his second start since missing 32 days with elbow soreness.

“In my opinion, Cole Henry is going to be, if he’s not already one of the best pitchers in the country,” Mainieri said.

Henry worked around two walks to open the bottom of the second and got out of a two-on, two-out situation in the fifth inning to exit spotless. He allowed only two hits, struck out six and walked three in five innings of work.

LSU added to its advantage in the top of the sixth, giving Henry a four-run lead before his official exit.

Brandt Broussard opened the sixth by legging out a double to right-center and moving to third on a ground out by Antoine Duplantis – whose attempt to set the LSU career hits record was delayed following an 0-for-4 evening.

Southern Miss went to its bullpen and replaced starter Walker Powell with lefty Sean Tweedy, who first hit Daniel Cabrera before giving up a sacrifice fly to Beloso that allowed Broussard to scamper home. Leading 2-0, Watson hit his second two-run home run in as many days to put the Tigers ahead 4-0.

Todd Peterson hung a zero in the bottom of the sixth, but not without drama. A walk and a single put Eagles on the corners with one out before Peterson got out of the jam with a shallow popup to right and a strikeout.

Southern Miss loaded the bases without a hit in the seventh, as Peterson walked the leadoff hitter and hit consecutive batters with no outs. LSU righthander Zack Hess entered in relief and gave up a grand slam to Matthew Guidry, who went to one knee to pop the ball over the right field fence and tie the game at 4-4.

“I always talk in superlatives when I talk about Zack Hess,” Mainieri said. “He gives up the home run and then he goes right through the middle of the order, three, four and five with the score tied. Then he gives us two more shutout innings. He goes three innings of shutout baseball and wins the game for us. That is why I have always believed in Zack Hess and always will. He is going to be pitching in the big leagues and I am going to be his biggest fan. He continually does things like that to show the inner fortitude he has.”

LSU fought back in the top of the eighth, as Cabrera smacked a double to right center to leadoff and Beloso was hit trying to get out of the way of a wild pitch that chased Southern Miss reliever Cody Carroll. Hunter Stanley entered and walked Watson on five pitches, bringing Saul Garza to the plate with the bases loaded.

With a 10-game hitting streak already intact, the Tigers catcher drilled a two-RBI single up the middle that brought home Beloso and Cabrera. Although Watson was thrown out attempting to advance to third, Garza took the extra base and then scored on a single to right field by Chris Reid.

“Saul is up to the plate and the crowd is on their feet,” Mainieri said. “There’s 11,000 people screaming like crazy. I just can’t imagine he has ever been in that position before in his life. He had such a calmness about him up at the plate. His calmness gave confidence to me and to the rest of the team that he was going to come through with that big hit. Not only did he get the hit, then he hustled to second base on the throw to third. That ended up being huge because Chris Reid then drove him in right after that from second base.”

LSU took a 7-4 lead into the top of the ninth, then added to it with The Box looking to come unhinged.

Josh Smith earned his second hit of the night with a double to right-center then stole third. With one out, Southern Miss made the very unpopular decision to walk Duplantis, who came to the plate looking for his record-setting 353rd career hit. Duplantis immediately stole to temporarily halt the chorus of boos, prompting the Eagles to intentionally walk Cabrera to load the bases. Smith then scored on a wild pitch to push LSU’s advantage to 8-4.

Attendance was announced as 11,015.

By Bill Franques