OMAHA, Neb. — Win or go home.
It’s all that the LSU Tigers could have hoped for after taking a 13-1 shellacking from Oregon State on Monday night. It’s everything the Beavers could have feared in a season in which their alchemy has turned everything to gold save the conduct of a couple of its key players.
Now both teams’ seasons are down to one game. Win and you’re in the College World Series championship round. Lose and pull up a chair in front of the TV like everyone else.
Set aside for a moment talent, coaching, whose pitching staff is in better shape now that the “if necessary” game for Bracket One has become necessary. Both teams have plenty enough to get the job done in those departments.
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Think instead of the pressure. The pressure that is now unquestionably pressing down on Oregon State’s shoulders like a pair of 100-pound weights.
LSU conversely is playing with house money. The Tigers looked like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight in that earlier loss to the Beavers. Yes, they came back to eliminate Florida State 7-4 on Wednesday, but the Seminoles were unseeded and one of the longer shots in the field.
Oregon State isn’t that. The Beavers came into Friday’s game with a record that for baseball reads like a typographical error: 56-4. They had won 23 straight, without a loss since April 29 against Southern California. They were throwing their unbeaten starter Jake Thompson, a big butcher knife from coach Pat Casey’s extensive drawer of sharp pitching implements.
But they lost. Hey, everyone loses in baseball. But it’s one thing when a loss happens in March …
Oh, Oregon State didn’t lose in March.
But now there is no margin for error. Oregon State is supposed to win it all, even without it’s other top pitcher Luke Heimlich, who recused himself after it came out that as a teenager he molested a school age cousin several years ago.
LSU will play Oregon State in a College World Series elimination game 2 p.m. Saturday at TD …
One more time for a chance to stay in Omaha.
That’s a terrible situation on so many fronts, but the Beavers were supposed to have more than enough left in the tank to reach the final without him or left fielder Christian Donahue, suspended for a violation of unspecified team rules.
But now, now Oregon State faces a situation completely foreign to the culture of winning that has wrapped around the Beavers like a warm blanket all season.
Now the pressure ratchets. Now out come the thumb screws, the rack and the Spanish inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish inquisition).
Now come the self-doubts from a game in which the Beavers managed just two hits off gutsy LSU starter Alex Lange and were victimized by the lack of a review on a shot that looked like it was off the left field foul line by Steven Kwan in the third. The Tigers got a huge gift in that the umpires and Oregon State coach Pat Casey waived their rights to calling for a review of the play, which likely would have helped the Beavers score more than the one run they scratched out in a now fateful third inning.
Now they see the specter of the screwy things that can happen in this screwy game, and how they have to overcome it all in front of high definition television cameras and about 23,000 folks here in the stands.
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Isn’t there pressure on the Tigers, too? Certainly. But after what they’ve been through this season, they’ve built up a certain immunity to what Oregon State faces. And the mumps, which is a nice side benefit.
While Oregon State was stomping through the Pacific Northwest, LSU was bumping along in April in the middle of the SEC pack. The Tigers had to sweep at Mississippi State at the end to share the regular-season title with Florida. They had to beat State again twice in the super regional when LSU was the favorite with everything to lose. They got knocked around like a guy throwing batting practice the first time they played Oregon State, losing one of their best starting pitchers, Eric Walker, to an arm injury in the bargain, then bounced back like a beach ball (too soon?) in the losers bracket.
Finality has been tugging at LSU’s elbow pad for several days now. No one wishes for such stress, but you can adapt.
The Oregon State players at Friday’s postgame postmortem looked like they didn’t quite know what to do. They don’t have much time to process this. As for LSU, well Lange pitched the Tigers to victory in an elimination game here two years ago against Cal State Fullerton. They’ve started in this TV show before.
Not surprisingly, though, LSU coach Paul Mainieri didn’t want to claim any sort of psychological advantage to this situation. In his mind he’s still trying to tiptoe past a sleeping bear, in a sense, even though it was his team that pitched, hit and played defense almost flawlessly Friday.
“We try to think of every day as a new entity,” Mainieri said. “I’m sure Pat (Casey, Oregon State’s coach) is over there telling his team, ‘Hey, we’ve just got to win one game.’ ”
Easily said. Not so easily done.
Especially when you’re the team that’s supposed to win.