LSU’s season was on the line, and something didn’t look right to Andy Cannizaro.
The Tigers trailed Rice 2-0 in the winner-take-all finale of the Baton Rouge regional Tuesday at Alex Box Stadium, and Owls starter Willy Amador had held the Tigers to just two hits through six innings.
“We were pretty stagnant and didn’t have much going,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said.
Cannizaro, LSU’s second-year hitting coach, called his hitters together as they prepared to take another crack at Amador in the top of the seventh. He could see that the hitters were pressing as the number of remaining outs shrunk and the number of runs stayed at zero.
“You could see that guys were letting the enormity of the game and the moment kind of get the best of them,” Cannizaro said. “So I wanted to bring them together and basically say, ‘We’re not playing a bad game right now. It’s only a 2-0 ballgame. We’ve got nine outs left. Let’s take these one at a time, go up there and win your at-bat, make it a one-on-one battle. Don’t worry about trying to jump-start the team, hit a ball in the gap or drive in the winning run. Just worry about winning your at bat.’ ”
Jake Fraley led off and won his at-bat by walking on five pitches. Robertson followed and won his by singling to right, sending Fraley to third and bringing the crowd to life.
“We always seem to have success after he has those midgame meetings with us,” Robertson said.
One out later, Greg Deichmann homered to center field — and just like that, the Tigers were ahead 3-2. They added two more runs in the eighth inning, and all of a sudden LSU was preparing to host Coastal Carolina on Saturday night to open the Baton Rouge super regional.
“Ultimately, guys were able to calm down, relax and understand that we still had the last third of the game to go,” Cannizaro said.
Fraley is the only everyday player left from last year’s team that reached the World Series, so Cannizaro has to be mindful of an inexperienced group of hitters’ growth as LSU goes deeper into the postseason.
The Tigers had won 44 of 63 games and earned a No. 8 national seed and, Cannizaro told his players, six innings of offensive struggles against Rice hadn’t changed that.
Robertson said Cannizaro is usually “a calming presence,” but he was “animated” in that meeting, as he had been in another three innings earlier.
“He felt like we were sleepwalking,” Robertson said. “He lit a fire under us, and it ended up working.”
Cannizaro’s philosophy is the same one that pitching coach Alan Dunn uses with his more experienced troops. The stakes get higher from the preconference schedule to the Southeastern Conference schedule to the league tournament to a regional, and then to a super regional and the College World Series for the eight teams that make it that far.
But the process doesn’t change, and that’s the point Cannizaro makes during his periodic in-game meetings, and that Dunn makes during his brief mound visits.
“There’s no reason to change,” Dunn said. “We’ve gotten to this position because these kids have grinded it out from the time we started in the fall until now. It’s been a process. They’ve ridden it out. They’ve had some ups, and they’ve had some downs. They’ve figured out what it takes to play in (the SEC). By all means, I want them to continue what they’ve done.”
Dunn likens his mound visits to 20-second timeouts in basketball.
“Obviously the situation is speeding up,” he said. “It’s a double or an error, or runners are running around the bases. All you want to do is say, ‘OK, let’s take a second here. Let’s give you a chance to breathe. Mentally let’s evaluate where I am and what’s going on and what do I need to do to get out of this situation?’ It’s really about letting that thing calm down for a couple of seconds so they can regroup, because obviously that next pitch may be the game.”
Dunn recalled a mound visit he had with Jared Poché in the first inning of the Tigers’ game against Mississippi State in the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs had two runners on, thanks to a bunt single and a walk, and there was one out when Dunn decided to go talk to Poché, who was throwing well but hadn’t gotten strikes called on a few borderline pitches.
“He was throwing the ball very, very well, and it looked like he was really in his groove and he was really pounding the zone pretty good, and evidently we were just missing,” Dunn said. “I told him, ‘Hey, you’re making some really good pitches. I think if you stay within that area and continue with the conviction on those pitches, it’s going to be very hard for those guys to lay off those pitches, because they’re such quality pitcher’s pitches.’ ”
Poché got a strikeout and, after another walk, he got a groundout to leave the bases loaded in a game he and the Tigers went on to win 6-2.
Dunn said the key to Poché getting out of the inning was not getting frustrated when he didn’t get a strike call, and not trying to pitch to what he thought the umpire’s strike zone should be.
“He didn’t try to do more than his ability allowed to the hitters that he was facing,” Dunn said. “He just stayed in the moment. He executed, and he was able to get out of that inning, and we rolled on.”
Earlier in the SEC tournament, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri called on closer Hunter Newman to start the eighth inning as the Tigers trailed 4-3. It wasn’t a normal routine for Newman, who usually comes in to start the ninth and rarely enters a game when the Tigers are trailing.
“(Dunn) just told me to keep us in the game,” Newman recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t lose focus.’ He’s always telling us, ‘Don’t let the game speed up; slow the game down and just do what you know how to do.’ He wants to keep our confidence up.”
Newman pitched a perfect eighth. The only base runner the Volunteers got in his two innings was one that reached on an error in the ninth. In the bottom of the inning, Deichmann led off with a tying home run, and Robertson’s RBI single gave Newman his only win of the season.
Cannizaro draws on his experience as a standout player at Tulane to relate to what his players are going through emotionally — particularly as the stakes get higher and the pressure intensifies in June.
In a 2001 super regional at Zephyr Field, Cannizaro was a senior shortstop when the higher-seeded Green Wave lost to LSU 4-3 in 13 innings of the first game.
“We never lost our confidence,” he said. “We had a belief that we were the better team that weekend, and we thought LSU played as good as they could that opening night, and they beat us in extra innings.
“So we just knew that we didn’t need to panic; we didn’t need to press. We just needed to come out the next day and play our game that we had played all year for 60-something games, and we knew that would be enough to win. And we ultimately did that for the next 18 innings.”
Tulane won 9-4 on Saturday and 7-1 on Sunday to reach the CWS for the first time.
A trip to the CWS is at stake for the Tigers and Chanticleers this weekend. At some point, Cannizaro will huddle with his hitters when they need a boost, and Dunn will visit the mound when the situation dictates it.
In both cases, the message will essentially be the same as it has been all season.
“Trust your track record and trust the things that you’ve done all year that make you a good club,” Cannizaro said. “Stick with your routine. Trust the fact that you’re a good player, play your game, do the things individually that allow your team to have success.
“If you’re a guy that gets on base, then try to get on base. Don’t try to hit a ball in the gap or (do) anything different than you’ve done all season long, every day since February. Trust the process that has allowed you to get to this point, and good things are going to happen.”
Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.