OMAHA, Neb. — LSU baseball fan Mike Anderson sat in the right-field bleachers Saturday night during the Tigers’ College World Series game with Florida State and watched a squirrel scamper across the field at TD Ameritrade Park.
Hmmm, thought Anderson (not that Mike Anderson, but Mike Anderson). The rally possum might be about to have some company.
The rally possum, you may recall, was the young marsupial who wandered into the Alex Box Stadium outfield last season during an LSU game against Arkansas. Shortly after he was captured, the Tigers rallied from what had once been a 9-1 deficit to beat the Razorbacks 10-9 in extra innings.
The rally possum spawned a clothing line (well, T-shirts) and a spike in stuffed toy possum sales across south Louisiana.
But that was a midseason game. This is the College World Series, the pinnacle of the sport, and here the rally possum may have been trumped by the rally beach ball.
Let us set the scene for you:
The Tigers trailed the Seminoles 4-3 going into the bottom of the eighth inning. LSU was stubbornly answering Florida State every time the Seminoles scored, but a two-run first-inning home run by FSU’s Dylan Busby was the difference.
LSU had already scored one utterly remarkable run in the first, as Antoine Duplantis flew first all the way from first base on a wild pitch strike three to Greg Deichmann. But as bizarre as that play was, it was only an appetizer for the main course that was the crazy eights eighth inning.
After Kramer Robertson popped out to shortstop, Cole Freeman lined a single off the glove of Florida State starting pitcher Tyler Holton, a glancing blow toward shortstop that allowed Freeman to reach first base with his rabbit-like speed.
“This could be a game-changer,” ESPN’s Eduardo Perez said with remarkable prescience.
Next Duplantis stepped to the plate. As he was working a 2-2 count off Holton, a beach ball came bounding through the right-field bleachers. Beach balls are a staple of the CWS for some reason. Some folks find them charming, some annoying. Few have ever become such a part of the story.
“We were in the front row in right field,” said Anderson, who was here with his son’s baseball team, the Mandeville Patriots (Their tournament here last week was wiped out when a tornado hit the facility where they were to play. Seriously). “The ball was bouncing around among the right field fans. It was going into the outfield and I went to hit it to the kids and it went off my fingertips and went back further onto the field by the right fielder.”
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The rainbow-colored ball landed on the warning track. Florida State right fielder Steven Wells trotted over, picked it up and tossed it back into the stands, from where it got batted up and away from the field.
“Even those wearing purple and gold just became Steven Wells fans out in right field,” ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson said.
No, but they were about to be.
On the next pitch, Duplantis singled sharply to right. Wells went all Bill Buckner as he charged the ball (the baseball this time), allowing it to leak past him. Freeman, who had stopped at second anticipating Wells would turn a routine play, soon re-engaged his afterburners and sped to third while Duplantis motored to second as a bad throw from Wells skittered past the bag. Freeman came home with a Pete Rose-like head-first slide on a high throw that glanced off the top of catcher Cal Raleigh’s glove to tie the game 4-4. Duplantis wound up at third.
Baseball is an untimed game. But in a span of 17 seconds marred by three Florida State errors, in as frenetic a sequence as you could ever see, the fortunes of two teams slipped past each other like two plates of an earthquake fault line.
Inevitably, LSU scored the winning run as Greg Deichmann scalded another grounder to right past drawn in second baseman Matt Henderson, bringing home Duplantis. It was almost anticlimactic as the Tigers held FSU scoreless in the ninth after a hit and a walk to win 5-4.
“The difference in the game was we made all our plays, and they didn’t,” Robertson said matter-of-factly (LSU committed no errors). “Defense at this point in the year is at a premium. You can’t give the other team anything. They gave us a few.”
They say in baseball, the ball will find you, burrowing through to pick the lock on your greatest weakness. Was Wells’ concentration broken by having to retrieve the beach ball? Anything’s possible.
As for Anderson, he insisted he wasn’t trying to distract Wells or inject himself into the narrative of a tense game.
But he’s hardly disappointed that it all happened.
“It was a nice Father’s Day present” he said of the win.
Monday night at 6 p.m., LSU will be back at it, squaring off with top-seeded Oregon State for control of its half of the CWS bracket. The winner will have to win only one more game to reach the best-of-three championship series, while the loser would have to win three times.
As big as it was to get off to a winning start Saturday — all six of LSU’s CWS champions have won their opener — this game could be bigger.
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As tough as Florida State was to beat, Oregon State may be tougher. The Beavers are a scarcely believable 55-4 this season. LSU (49-17) has won 17 straight, but Oregon State has won 22 in a row.
“It looks like a typo when you see they just have four losses,” Robertson said, “especially since they play in the Pac-12. They’re a very, very good team.
“But so are we.”
Anderson and his son’s team will be back at the ballpark Monday night. A security guard confiscated the now infamous beach ball, but he got LSU players and coaches to sign another at practice Sunday.
“Yes,” Anderson confirmed, “we will have some beach balls.”
Just hope no one brings a possum.