Alex Box Stadium isn’t one of our local riverboat gaming establishments, but after Saturday night’s NCAA super regional opener, the odds are now heavily in favor of the house.
Twenty-two percent. That’s the daunting chances the LSU Tigers lowered the Mississippi State Bulldogs’ hopes to after a dramatic 4-3 come-from-behind victory.
According to ESPN, only 22 percent of teams that lose Game 1 of the best-of-three super regionals come back to win them and advance to the College World Series.
It’s still very doable for State. The Tigers should by no means celebrate, and the Bulldogs are by no means finished.
But it’s what former LSU coach Skip Bertman would accurately describe as “low percentage.” And if the Tigers aren’t celebrating, they are going home, pulling the luggage out of the closet and trying to figure out what else they can pack that goes with purple.
When aces like Alex Lange and Konnor Pilkington are on their game, like they were Saturday n…
"They'll be talking about this game 10 years from now," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, whose Tigers posted their biggest NCAA tournament comeback from three or more runs down after seven innings since beating Rice 6-5 in the 2008 CWS.
"What an incredible baseball game," said State coach (and former LSU assistant) Andy Cannizaro, still managing to be a 100-watt bulb of positivity despite such a crushing result. "With Omaha on the line and matching up LSU and Mississippi State, I don’t know how you’d expect any other kind of ballgame."
If this game was determined by rounds like a prize fight, the Bulldogs would have won the first one.
It was only 1-0 State after one inning, but the lead felt larger. The UnderBulldogs had an early espresso shot of adrenaline after a shaky first for Alex Lange. The LSU ace gave up just one hit but walked two and zinged Jake Mangum with a pitch that allowed Brent Rooker to trot home with the game’s first run.
Giving the underdog the early momentum requires a redoubled effort by the favorite to wrench said momentum out of their now-excited clutches. LSU had to expend a lot of energy to do it, but after seven trying innings the Tigers finally reeled State in.
In the second inning, the empire began to strike back. Lange got a grounder to short and struck out the next two State batters, freezing Bulldogs leadoff man Hunter Stovall like Han Solo in carbonite. It was the start of a dominant middle stretch of the game for Lange that included confidence-boosting strikeouts of Rooker (State’s SEC triple-crown hero) in the third and sixth as he retired 20 of 22 batters from the first to the eighth.
The two most important chapters of Alex Lange’s life are as distinct as his two primary pitches.
The Tigers came so close to breaking through in the bottom of the fourth as speed and a pair of singles by Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson put runners at second and third with one out. But Beau Jordan battled through his at-bat, then popped out to second. Josh Smith then looked like he’d launched a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers, but all he did was slam State’s Hunter Vansau into the wall with the third out.
More frustration followed for LSU in the fifth as the Tigers victimized themselves with a base-running blunder. Michael Papierski led off with a ringing double into the left-field corner and moved to third on a textbook bunt. But Kramer Robertson then chopped one toward third that caused Papierski to wander down the line. Third baseman Cody Brown tagged him out, then Cole Freeman grounded out to end the inning.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri came out to argue that Brown might have been in foul ground when he made the play on the ball, but to no avail. It was a borderline call at best, and depending on borderline calls to win games will often get you beat.
The seventh inning brought more frustration for the Tigers as Jordan got thrown out on a brilliant toss from center by Mangum. State added two runs in the top of the eighth on an RBI double by Brown to finally chase the plucky Lange, who exited what will be his final start at The Box to a standing ovation.
Finally LSU broke through in the bottom of the inning. A lead off walk to Kramer Robertson and a one-out single by Duplantis allowed Greg Deichmann to bring them home with a slicing double to left. He scored the tying run on an RBI single by Watson, who then scored what turned out to be the winning run on a deep sacrifice fly by Papierski, atonement for the big catcher after his base-running blunder in the fifth.
"As soon as Kramer walked, the gates of hell were unleashed," Lange said. "They hit some balls hard, and it was just time something started to fall. Once you get a couple of guys going and this offense gets confidence, it’s unreal. This offense is too good to be contained for nine innings and not score."
Now LSU hands the ball to Jared Poché in what could be an historic turn for the senior left-hander. Poche, who came back for 2017 after being unable to agree to terms with the San Diego Padres when they drafted him in the 14th round last year, is sitting on 37 career wins. One more, one of his biggest, would tie him with Scott Schultz for the school record with a chance to break it in Omaha, Nebraska.
It’s an enviable position for the Tigers to be in, given that freshman Eric Walker is waiting at Poché’s back to pitch Game 3, if needed, to push LSU to Omaha. Walker has pitched brilliantly in his recent starts, with his efforts helping the Tigers clinch a share of the SEC regular-season title at Mississippi State, the SEC tournament title against Arkansas and last weekend’s regional against Rice.
It’s not a fait accompli for LSU, more like advantage point in tennis. And the Bulldogs, who have been kings of comebacks with an NCAA-leading 25 of them this season, can't be expected to simply fold.
"It’s kind of heartbreaking," Brown said, "but I have trust and confidence in our team. It shows we can battle. We just have to do it for nine innings next time."
Still, as with most games of chance, it’s good to be the house.
Responding to a question about how his current senior class compares to past classes, Paul M…
WHO: Mississippi State vs. LSU