The cliché rolled out of Alex Lange’s mouth.
He’s taking his next start - LSU’s NCAA regional game Saturday - like all of the rest, he said a few days ago. It’ll be no different.
Oh, but it was.
It was his best.
Lange hurled a six-hit shutout, and the Tigers beat UNC-Wilmington 2-0 on Saturday night — no, Sunday morning — to send the top-ranked team in the land into Sunday’s Baton Rouge regional championship.
Lange struck out a whopping 12 batters in a 119-pitch, nine-inning complete game that’ll go down in LSU lore as one of the finest from a freshman on such a grand stage. Chris Chinea broke a scoreless tie in the seventh inning with an RBI single, and Jared Foster drove in another in the ninth as the Tigers (50-10) hit the 50-win mark in a key game.
Coach Paul Mainieri’s team claimed what many call “the all-the-marbles game” in these four-team, double-elimination events. LSU would have to lose twice to miss a best-of-three super regional next week.
The Tigers will play at 7 p.m. Sunday on the SEC Network against Tulane (35-24) or UNC-Wilmington (40-17). Those teams meet at 3 p.m. Sunday. An if-necessary game is set for 7 p.m. Monday.
After Saturday’s game, the praise went to one man.
“I give all the credit to Alex Lange,” Chinea said.
Lange, a rookie from Missouri, moved to 11-0, and his ERA dropped to 1.76 in a game that ended at 1:09 a.m. Sunday. A 3-hour, 16-minute weather delay in the regional’s early game pushed the nightcap’s start to 10:16 p.m.
No. 3 seed Tulane eliminated fourth-seeded Lehigh with a 15-3 win in a game that started at 3 p.m. and ended at about 9:20 p.m.
Lange didn’t seem rattled by his late start, and an estimated 7,000 LSU fans roared behind his every move. He retired 10 of the last 11 batters, striking out the last three in a gem of a performance that reminded Mainieri of Anthony Ranaudo’s nine-inning, 14-strikeout outing in a 3-2 win over Baylor. That start also came in the same game of the 2009 Baton Rouge regional.
“He’s the next in the long line of humble superstars that we’ve had around here,” Mainieri said after high-fiving his star pitcher before a postgame news conference began. “What a performance.”
It was, indeed. LSU supplied just enough run support, too.
The Tigers finally got to UNCW starter Evan Phillips in the seventh, firing three straight hits off the right-hander who entered with an ERA of near 5.00. Kade Scivicque opened the inning with a double to the wall in left-center, and Andrew Stevenson had a single before Chinea’s single broke a scoreless game and chased Phillips from the mound.
LSU added an insurance run in the top of the ninth after singles from Stevenson and Jake Fraley, but Lange didn’t need it.
The Southeastern Conference freshman of the year, Lange worked his jam-busting magic on the mound and set a record in the process. With a third-inning strikeout — his second K of the night — he became the only LSU freshman to strike out 100 batters in a season.
He’s allowed two earned runs in his last 28 innings pitched.
“Should be national freshman of the year,” Mainieri said. “Might be national pitcher of the year.”
He wasn’t the sharpest early on. Lange threw 13 balls in his first 25 pitches, driving up a pitch count that reached 50 with one out in the fourth inning. He worked around leadoff singles in the second, fourth and fifth innings and ended the sixth with a massive K. He stranded four runners in scoring position in his first six frames.
“Every pitch wasn’t working tonight. Beginning of the game was a battle. Was able to pitch out of some jams,” Lange said. “It was a battle. Had a lot of reflecting to do in the dugout to figure it out.”
In the fourth, the Seahawks had men at first and second with one out before Lange pulled the trick. He struck out Luke Dunlap and then fielded a grounder for the final out, sprinting to the dugout as the Alex Box crowd cheered.
In the fifth, he struck out three straight batters to negate that leadoff hit, getting the last K with a runner on second. The sixth brought more roars. UNCW first baseman Corey Dick hit a two-out double off the wall before Lange struck out the final batter.
“It started to click as the game progressed,” Lange said. “Command got stronger.”
UNC-Wilmington finished 0-for-6 against Lange with runners in scoring position, and he had a wild string of strikeouts. He had seven strikeouts in a 12-batter span from the fourth to the seventh.
He had his most efficient innings in the seventh and eighth, retiring the side in both on a total of 13 pitches — a reason Mainieri kept him on the mound for the ninth.
“I wasn’t going to take him out. Probably would have had 12,000 people attack me in the dugout if I did,” Mainieri said. “I thought he was still throwing the ball well. As long as he felt strong and wasn’t laboring, thought it was the right thing to do to leave him in there.”
The coach had Zac Person and Parker Bugg — his top two relievers — warming in the bullpen as the eighth-inning started.
Lange’s complete game sets up LSU well for Sunday night’s game. Person and Bugg have not pitched this weekend, and LSU’s No. 2 starter, Jared Poché (7-1, 3.35), gets the assignment.
“We’re playing for a championship tomorrow,” Mainieri said. “I know Jared Poché is excited about that opportunity.”
The NCAA tournament’s No. 2 overall seed and consensus top-ranked squad for the last month, LSU avoided what NCAA No. 1 overall seed UCLA couldn’t. The Bruins lost their Game 2 in their regional to 3 seed Maryland, a team UNC-Wilmington won a series over earlier this season.
LSU had to do it deep into the night and early into the morning. The clock struck midnight in the sixth inning, turning Saturday into Sunday.
It was a late one, for sure.
The game began more than two hours after its scheduled start time of 8 p.m. Phillips delivered a first-pitch ball at 10:16 p.m. in front of a two-thirds-full Alex Box Stadium. It was a significant moment. It’s thought to be the latest start time for an LSU baseball game in the past 15 to 20 years, at least.
Blame the rain for all of this mess, and it’s not over. There is an 80 percent chance of rain Sunday.
This wasn’t the only regional affected by weather. Three other regionals — at Houston, Illinois and Dallas Baptist — postponed games scheduled for Saturday to Sunday because of storms.
LSU joins Vanderbilt, Florida and Arkansas as Southeastern Conference teams that have gone 2-0 in their NCAA regionals. They can all advance to a best-of-three super regional with a win Sunday.
The Tigers are all set up to do it — mostly because of their star 19-year-old.
Lange looked to the dark sky after the final out — a swinging strike — and thrust both hands in the air as players poured around him.
“I was thanking the Lord for this opportunity,” he said.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.