By John Shinn
CNHI News Service
BATON ROUGE, La. – For seven innings, Jonathan Gray dominated a very potent LSU lineup. The Oklahoma pitcher racked up strike outs in bunches and hadn’t even allowed a base runner to get into scoring position.
However, it only took one mistake to flip a game like the one the Sooners played against the Tigers Friday night at Alex Box Stadium. That one mistake was the difference in OU’s 2-0 loss that has its season one more loss away from ending.
Of the 118 pitches Gray threw, the one he wanted back was the 0-2 pitch to LSU’s Jacoby Jones with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning. Gray challenged Jones with a fastball. Jones belted it into the right-center field gap for a triple.
Neither Gray or OU recovered.
“I left the ball up,” said Gray, who dropped to 10-3 despite only allowing five hits and striking out nine over 7 1-3 innings. “I threw it too close the (strike) zone and it got hit.”
Two pitches later, Tyler Moore came off the bench and lined a double to right field to give the Tigers (56-9) a one-run lead, ending Gray’s night and the epic pitchers’ duel he waged with LSU’s Aaron Nola. The insurance run Mark Laird tacked on with a single to score Moore was just icing on the cake for the Tigers.
The LSU right-hander won because OU (43-20) couldn’t capitalize on the one mistake he made. Nola (12-0) threw a complete-game two-hitter. However, OU’s failure to capitalize on that first hit was the adrenaline rush Nola needed.
Matt Oberste led off the top of the fifth inning with a double and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Hector Lorenzana.
Oberste didn’t get any closer to scoring that precious run. Anthony Hermelyn struck out and Colt Bickerstaff couldn’t leg out a chopper to second base.
It was a turning point in the game.
“It was disappointing at the time,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said. “I know Big Jon well and you’re gonna have to pry the ball out of his hand once we get the lead and he’s probably gonna be a little bit tougher. The adrenaline starts flowing and he’s a thoroughbred. When those guys start smelling the finish line, he probably becomes a lot more efficient.”
Gray had to be perfect with the confusion Nola caused throughout OU’s batting order. The Sooners only had three base runners all night. Their last hit came on a two-out single by Bickerstaff in the top of the eighth inning.
“Coming into the game, I knew it was going to be a pitchers’ duel,” Nola said. “All Gray has done this year is be outstanding. Our whole team knew it was going to be a pitching duel, and we were going to get deep in the game – both of us.”
The loss ended the Sooners’ eight-game winning streak, which stretched back to the regular-season finale at Kansas State. Gray picked up two of those victories – against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament’s opening game and Game 1 of last week’s Blacksburg Regional against Coastal Carolina – with complete games.
The difference between Friday night and Gray’s previous two starts and the previous eight games was the complete lack of run support.
“We need to get over it pretty quick because we need to come back tomorrow,” Oberste said. “You know, it’s a three-game series and you have to win two. Jonathan did a good job throwing. We have to do a better job as hitters to get runs across.”
The teams meet again at 6 p.m. today at Box Stadium. LSU can clinch a 16th trip to the College World Series with a victory. OU must win today to force a third game Sunday to get back Omaha for the 11th time.
After losing with Gray – OU’s definitive ace – it’s a steep climb.