Andy Cannizaro’s training of an LSU lineup that replaced eight of nine everyday starters received national commendation. He coaches without bravado and in almost docile tones, a puzzling persona that accompanies his hulking, Major League-type build.
The nine players he’d molded into the Southeastern Conference’s top-hitting team gathered around the coach in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s 5-2 regional championship win against Rice.
To this point, the group had one hit while Rice starter Willy Amador required 22 pitches. Contact was weak and early in the count.
Cannizaro barked so loudly it was audible through a morose Alex Box Stadium crowd. His sculpted arms gyrated while his players listened, some looking nervous at the prospect of their season ending at the hands of a right-hander who entered the proceedings with an ERA approaching six.
“I thought we looked a little tired and I didn’t think we had that sense of urgency we normally play with,” Cannizaro said. “ And just with the magnitude of the game, I wanted to do everything I could to help get ourselves going a little bit.”
Greg Deichmann listened to the admonishment. He was the only LSU player with a base hit. He and the Tigers’ second-year hitting coach worked all season on fastballs toward the outer-half.
“We’ve been getting him to buy into not taking them,” Cannizaro says.
Deichmann watched last season’s regional on his cell phone in Mequon, Wisconsin while playing summer baseball. Tuesday, with his team eight outs away from elimination, he sent Amador’s 0-1 pitch — that fastball over the outer-half — 416 feet away to dead center field for a two-run home run that ended Amador’s mastery of the lineup. It sent his hitting coach nearly to home plate in jubilation, LSU now with a 3-2 lead.
“It sounded like an explosion at the plate,” Cannizaro said as his young son, Pierce, celebrated with his father’s players.
Since college baseball switched to BBCOR bats, tenth-year coach Paul Mainieri’s never seen a ball hit where this one landed. It slammed into ESPN’s center field camera, which was positioned behind the McDonald’s ad close to the ‘405’ measurement.
“The key for me this weekend is not looking for a ball through a keyhole, kind of opening up my zone,” Deichmann said after his nine-hit regional. “I was able to get my hands up to it and just put a great swing on it in that situation,”
From second base, Robertson blacked out when Deichmann’s bat met ball. He thinks he yelled as the ball flew, urging it out. Deichmann, Robertson says, is one of the few college baseball players that can hit with such authority to the opposite field.
Setting up the slam was Robertson’s doing.
Jake Fraley became the first leadoff LSU hitter in seven innings to reach base, drawing Amador’s only walk. Mainieri met Robertson in the on-deck circle, calling a hit and run as he watched his team’s season end before his eyes.
The pitch sailed above his eyes and outside. Robertson executed, drilling a ground ball away from second baseman Grayson Lewis, who sped to cover second while Fraley stole.
Aggressively, Fraley sped home on Bryce Jordan’s sacrifice fly in foul territory. Robertson took second on a feeble throw, where he stood as Deichmann’s homer flew and hit ESPN’s camera.
“He’s probably one of a handful of guys in college baseball that could hit a ball like that,” Robertson said.
Robertson added an RBI double in a two-run eighth following Mike Papierski’s leadoff solo home run, plenty to support the most veteran postseason presence on this team.
Following Monday’s 10-6 loss, Mainieri listed veteran southpaw Jared Poche — who threw 92 pitches Friday — as a “possibility” to start Tuesday’s elimination game against a lefty-heavy Owls lineup.
Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn talked “ad nauseum” about the decision. They tabbed ballyhooed redshirt freshman Jake Latz to start and planned to use Poche afterward.
“I didn’t believe Jared was going to give us more than three innings, quite frankly,” Mainieri said. “I didn’t know how good his stuff would be. Then in the first inning he went out there, he was 90, 91. He had his stuff.”
“And he was dropping that curveball.”
Poche does not come out of the bullpen, so warming him took time. He sat on the bullpen bench without throwing from the first inning through the middle of the second, as Latz and reliever Russell Reynolds struggled to subdue the Owls offense.
He was ready in the third, his team down 2-0.
Poche did not leave until after the eighth, finishing six shutout innings. For the first time all season, Poche hit 93 mph. His curveball was precisely commanded, the putaway pitch for most of his six strikeouts. The first 16 Rice hitters to face him were retired.
“Today was scheduled for my bullpen day, around 30 pitches or so,” Poche sadid. “I felt great going into the game and throughout the entire game … This is a win or go home game for us, so I wanted the ball in my hand.”
Rice — the team unusually occupying the home dugout at Alex Box Stadium — was frazzled. It mirrored its opponent prior to the eighth. Owls gathered in a huddle around an assistant coach.
Poche escaped unscathed, tossing his sixth and final shutout inning.
“That was phenomenal, man,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “I’m at a loss for words to say what he did. He was just lights out. You talk about being a ‘dude’ and rising up, that’s it.”
Deichmann was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player, but he and others wanted to ensure credit. LSU could not fathom winning this rain-logged, five-day weekend without its grizzled left-hander that, for four innings, seemed to be making his final appearance in Alex Box Stadium.
He’s now guaranteed two more, with the sport’s most prized city two victories away.
“The Omaha thing is sniffing distance away,” Mainieri said. “It’s so close they can taste it.”