COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tommy Mainieri rushed from the LSU dugout toward his moving target.
He embraced Paul Mainieri in a brief father-and-son moment at Carolina Stadium.
LSU players distributed high fives. Staff members got on their phones, and a small group of purple-and-gold-clad fans chanted.
The Tigers popped the proverbial champagne bottles even before playing South Carolina on Saturday night. They probably popped even more afterward.
LSU won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship Saturday when Alabama beat Vanderbilt. And then the Tigers rolled to a 8-1 victory over South Carolina to prove they didn’t need any of the Crimson Tide’s help after all.
“We like to win,” shortstop Alex Bregman said. “That’s what this team likes to do. We were trying to compete and win this game no matter what. Didn’t matter if we were already champions or if we had to win to be champions.”
The top-ranked team in the land, LSU (46-9, 21-8) delivered a knockout blow to the Gamecocks (32-24, 13-17) in the rubber match to secure a ninth SEC series win in 10 series in this regular-season finale.
Chris Chinea and Bregman hit home runs, and starter Alex Lange struck out nine in his five-inning stay as the Tigers capped a memorable regular season in style.
For just the fifth time in program history, LSU won at least 45 games, and it completed a regular season without losing consecutive games for the second time in school history — the first since 1906, a team that played just 13 games.
What’s more? They won a championship.
“It feels great. Any time you get a win like this it’s awesome, especially on the road,” said Foster, who was on the 2012 SEC title team that secured the championship at Carolina Stadium as well. “Feels good to win it again.”
News of Vanderbilt’s 1-0 loss at Alabama seeped out about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. first pitch of LSU’s game against Carolina. It incited a somewhat subdued celebration in and around the LSU dugout.
The Tigers claimed their league-leading 16th SEC title — three more than Alabama and Florida (13) and six more than Mississippi State (10).
Tommy Mainieri, a recent college graduate who’s traveled with the team this season, ran out of the dugout to meet his father for a hug. Paul Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn high-fived, and a group of players bounced around briefly in a circle before taking infield and outfield drills.
A few staff members were seen on the phone, including Mainieri, who talked for several minutes with someone about 30 minutes before the game began.
“It was a little unusual, but it was exhilarating,” Mainieri said of the pregame party. “We were pretty fired up to find out Alabama beat Vanderbilt. Took a lot of pressure off us tonight obviously.”
A scintillating regular season had ended with a crown. The Tigers added some sparkle to it, jumping to a 4-0 lead after thee innings and holding on to beat a USC team that might have a 15-year NCAA regional streak end.
Lange, for a second straight start, flashed signs of the freshman who rolled through his first six starts. He retired 11 straight at one point, allowed one hit, walked three and hit a batter. He retired the side in three straight innings, including a three-strikeout fourth.
“Found my groove,” he said.
USC shortstop Marcus Mooney got the only hit off Lange — a fifth-inning single. Lange shook off some rough spots to strand four runners in scoring position. He struck out the final two in the first with men on second and third and retired two of the last three in the fifth to push his record to 10-0.
Just four other LSU rookie hurlers have reached that mark. Undefeated and part of an SEC championship team as a first-year player? Not bad.
“It’s been a fun ride, man. This team’s awesome,” Lange said as a line of LSU players signed autographs for more than 300 fans. “It’s indescribable right now. It’s surreal. It’s like a dream come true. We’re not done. We’re still hungry. We’re still looking forward.”
Center fielder Andrew Stevenson made a running grab to end the fifth with a man on second, slamming into the left-center field wall on the catch, and Bregman made a dazzling, spinning play to end the second.
Reliever Hunter Newman walked two batters and hit another to load the bases in his one-inning stay, but he wiggled free of the jam with an inning-ending strikeout to strand them loaded and preserve a then 5-1 LSU lead in the seventh.
Jesse Stallings and Zac Person faced the minimum in their one inning stints, and Alden Cartwright finished the job with a perfect ninth to cap this magnificent regular season.
“They’ve met every challenge we’ve had this year,” Mainieri said, fresh off a Gatorade shower. “I think our team is getting more confident with each passing day. We’re finding … guys are settling into roles, particularly in the bullpen. We’re excited about the possibilities for the postseason.”
Bregman broke out of a cold snap at the plate — he started the series 1-for-10 — with a solo home run that nearly cleared the entire park and an RBI single. Stevenson had three hits a night after barreling four in Friday’s 9-2 win, and the Tigers had double-digit hits for a third straight game, blowing the game open with three runs in the eighth inning.
They finished 41 hits for the series.
No, these Tigers didn’t need any help at all in taking down the conference crown. They’ll be the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament and will play Tuesday’s Kentucky-Auburn winner at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
They may have, as well, secured the program’s first NCAA No. 1 national seed, completing an 11-3 record in road SEC games this season. They did this one with PGA Tour professional and former LSU golfer David Toms in the dugout.
He made the 90-minute drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he’s playing in the tour’s Wells Fargo Championship.
On the final out, Toms ran onto the field with LSU players to add a postgame celebration to the pregame party.
“This is the first time I’ve won the SEC overall,” Bregman said. “Never had that happen to me before. We knew there was no pressure on us. It was play for the love of the game.”