OMAHA, Neb. — How to beat a team that had seen the sun rise 55 times since its last loss: Hand the ball to Alex Lange, and when he is done, pass it off to Zack Hess.
The pair worked in a beautiful tandem, allowing two hits and striking out 12. Behind them LSU handed top-ranked Oregon State its first loss since April 29, keeping its season alive for at least one more day with a 3-1 win.
“This is why I came to LSU,” Lange said. “To play in these big games.”
For someone who allowed only two hits in 7.1 innings, Lange’s effort was defined more by its grit than its dominance. Oregon State made his innings stressful, ramping up his pitch count and making the big right-hander sweat on a cool day in Nebraska.
Even so, Lange never lost his cool.
“He’s been in big games, he pitched like a big-time guy,” said Oregon State coach Pat Casey. “He threw the ball where he needed to when he needed to. And he’s good, man, he’s real good.”
Oregon State (56-5) looked to be in a race to see how fast it could force Lange (10-5) out of the ballgame. Though he was keeping them off the scoreboard, by the time the fifth inning had come to a close, the Beavers had forced Lange to throw 89 pitches.
They battled Lange, fouling off two-strike pitches and working four walks against him in the first five innings.
But Lange buckled down, needing 34 pitches to retire the last eight batters he faced, his 115th pitch resulting in dangerous leadoff man Steven Kwan grounding out to second base.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri had a decision to make after Lange got through the seventh inning at 112 pitches. Hess was ready in the bullpen, but Mainieri didn’t want to bring him in to face Kwan first, because Kwan “has a strike zone about the size of a thimble.”
He asked Lange if he could get one more batter, and Lange responded in the affirmative.
After Lange retired Kwan, LSU turned the game over to Hess. The Beavers battled Lange and lost, and they looked worn out by the time Hess came in.
The 6-foot-6 freshman hammered the strike zone with his mid-90s fastball, and Oregon State could barely touch it. Hess struck out four of the five batters he faced. The last of his 23 pitches was a 95 mph fastball that Tyler Malone watched for strike three.
Twenty of Hess’ 23 pitches were fastballs.
“That’s what (pitching coach Alan Dunn) was calling, so I was just sticking to it,” Hess said. “We knew coming into it we were going to have to be aggressive with them. … We were going to stick with the heater the whole time until they proved they could hit it.”
The Tigers will play Oregon State again Saturday at a time to be determined, depending on the winner of Friday night’s game between Florida and TCU. The winner will advance to the College World Series championship round.
Unlike their first matchup with the Beavers, the Tigers jumped out to an early lead by bringing two runs home in the top of the second.
The sequence was eerily similar to the beginning of LSU’s five-run second inning rally against Florida State on Wednesday, with the exact same outcome for the first four batters of the inning.
Greg Deichmann led the inning off with hustle double down the right field line, then had to hold at third base on a Zach Watson single. A Josh Smith single scored the first run, and a Beau Jordan squeeze bunt played the second run.
Oregon State answered with a run in the bottom of the third, when Trevor Larnach battled back from an 0-2 count to walk with the bases loaded and two outs. But Lange struck out slugger KJ Harrison, who hit a grand slam against LSU on Monday, to end the inning.
Lange described the sequence: Get the all-important first strike. At 1-1, make sure you don’t fall behind 2-1. At 1-2, go to the strikeout pitch.
“It was a good breaking ball,” Lange said. “He’s a good hitter, and he just missed.”
Opposing hitters are now 0-for-20 with 15 strikeouts, two walks and a hit by pitch against Lange with the bases loaded this season.
That 2-1 score held until the top of the seventh inning, when Smith ambushed the first pitch he saw from Oregon State starter Jake Thompson (14-1), sending it over the bullpen in right field to give LSU a 3-1 lead.
Saturday may have been Lange’s final outing in an LSU uniform. The only way he would pitch again is if LSU beats Oregon State on Saturday and LSU advances to the CWS final.
“Hopefully Alex will have another game to pitch this week,” Mainieri said.