HOOVER, Ala. — You can say it’s the rally possum. That old black magic. Clean living. Full moons.
Call it what you will. But there’s something special going on with this LSU baseball team. Something that even in LSU’s proud and storied tradition we’ve never seen before.
Certainly there was never a game like this one in SEC tournament history, a game that started during the last Bush administration and ended at 1:48 a.m. with the Tigers taking down Florida for the third time in four meetings, this by a 5-3 score.
It included incredible starting pitchers, incredible rallies, and a desperate, mind-blowing stratagem by LSU coach Paul Mainieri in the 11th to put in five infielders with the bases swimming with Gators and no one out.
Somehow, it worked. Somehow, whatever LSU does right now works. The Tigers have now won 13 of 14 in this remarkable May, eight of those wins by two runs or less.
“I can’t say I’ve ever been a part of a baseball game quite like that,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “We had our backs against the ropes so many times, we probably faced at least three big league pitchers tonight. Our pitchers did phenomenal job of keeping it close with them. Every time we thought we were down and out we found a way to get out of it.”
Every night — or morning — someone new is the hero. This game it was catcher Jordan Romero, who was in such a hideous batting funk that he sat while Michael Papierski played a strong defensive but hitless catcher’s role for 13 innings.
Romero was 0-for-17 until he lined a sharp single to right to bring home Chris Reid from third. Cole Freeman added an insurance run for good measure with an RBI to score Brennan Breaux.
“We have this don’t quit mentality,” Romero said afterward. “It’s taken us a long way.”
It was Breaux’ controversial misadventure when he came on in the ninth to play left field that started the extra-inning merry go round. A pop fly by Buddy Reed that bounced off Breaux’s glove as he charged toward the left-field line was first ruled a foul ball but was later ruled fair, putting Reed at second. He would score on a two-out single by Deacon Liput to tie LSU 3-3 and send this game into the twilight zone.
Finally, Romero and the Tigers ended the insanity shortly before Texas A&M and South Carolina showed up to play their 9:30 a.m. game.
How big was this win? For one thing, the Tigers avoid a brand of double jeopardy. The Gators, who have to be crushed emotionally by this loss, have to return to the Hoover Met and play Alabama in an elimination game sometime around 1 p.m.
LSU gets another prime-time showdown, this one with its ancient rival, Mississippi State. The winner moves automatically into Saturday’s semifinal round.
It’s yet another big one for the Tigers, who at 41-17 with this late-season surge are now in position to state their case for an all-important top eight NCAA tourmament seed.
How did LSU get here? This was once the gang that couldn’t hit straight. Now they seemingly can’t stop coming through in the clutch.
Tuesday night with momentum blowing a gale in their collective faces the Tigers rallied from a 4-0 deficit to win 5-4 over Tennessee with a big blast home run from Greg Deichmann to tie it in the top of the ninth before Kramer Robertson delivered the winning RBI.
Wednesday night the Tigers fell behind 2-0 right out of the blocks. But LSU hung in and hung in and eventually chased A.J. Puk, Florida’s ace and the presumed Republican nominee — sorry, it’s late, the presumed first pick in the major league draft — with a clutch three-run rally in the eighth.
This isn’t just a trend. It’s bordering on the occult. There’s something paranormal at work with this team that can’t be explained by the oddly timed appearance of a wayward marsupial.
Or maybe it can. Superstitions are woven deep into baseball’s tapestry. It’s as good an explanation as anything else.
Then again, perhaps it’s a young team finally growing up. Maybe they still don’t what they’re doing either, but they fight hard and find the will to eventually wear down the opposition.
And maybe instead of everyone asking why third-base coach Nolan Cain sent this guy or that guy to the plate, they should be thinking that this has been a masterful coaching job by Paul Mainieri and his staff. It may be their best effort since he’s been at LSU.
Cain, let the record show, held Antoine Duplantis at third instead of sending him home to almost certainly be gunned out at the plate in the eighth. Jake Fraley took second and drew an ill-advised throw from Florida catcher Mike Rivera, allowing Duplantis to score on the error.
Lost in all of this but worth remembering: the grit and determination of LSU ace Alex Lange.
Lange got roughed up in the first inning for two runs off a pair of doubles and a triple by the top four batters in the Gators’ order, allowing Jonathan India and J.J. Schwarz to come round to score. Lange couldn’t locate his breaking ball for strikes in that frame and the Florida batters were cannily lying in wait for his fastballs to come zooming over the plate so they could launch them right back out again.
First-inning struggles have been a recurring issue for Lange this season. So has been his ability to buckle down after that and mow down the opposition. Lange seemingly got better and better, striking out 11 Gators in seven innings of work, tying his season high. From the third through the sixth innings the big right-hander retired 10 Gators in order, looking masterful in the process. In all he set down 12 of the last 13 Florida batters he faced.
It took much more than that for LSU to win. Right now, LSU is about much more than its most talented player.
Right now, it’s about a happening, a remarkable string of victories that have been incredibly entertaining.
We still don’t know where the Tigers are going from here, but it’s riveting to watch.