Jared Foster cracked a towering fly ball deep to the warning track in right-center field, a blast that looked like two bases rode on its contrail — maybe three.
At the last moment, UNC-Wilmington right fielder Zach Shields dived flat out and skidded across the dirt to make the grab, holding the ball up for second-base umpire Travis Katzenmeier to prove his feat was fact.
LSU fans applauded the effort, as they often do when someone from the opposing team, even Alabama and Ole Miss, does something impressive.
But as Saturday night ground inexorably into Sunday morning for a rain-delayed game that started at 10:16 p.m., the Seahawks’ pluck and tenacity became less and less entertaining for appreciative fans who stuck around for this late, late show.
This was the proverbial marble game, the game in an NCAA regional between first-day winners that propels the victor into a have-to-lose-twice winners’ bracket game and makes the loser have to fight its way out of a pitcher-sapping losers’ bracket. Though it’s no guarantee, as LSU proved to its despair last year against Houston, win on Saturday and you’re halfway to the super regional.
It looked like coronation time for the Tigers as they continued to bombard UNCW starter Evan Phillips. Their sharp hits persisted in being loud outs, but eventually they had to fall, right?
Instead, the glowing orange zeros mounted inning after inning on the Alex Box Stadium scoreboard until it became clear that the Seahawks wouldn’t go quietly into that humid South Louisiana night. The Tigers would have to work for this win.
The Tigers would have to get a big performance from freshman starter Alex Lange.
LSU beat Lehigh 10-3 on Friday with “Jack Wholestaff,” to use a Paul Mainieri term, doing the pitching. The Tigers sent more pitchers to the mound against Lehigh (seven) than the Elks Orleanians have Mardi Gras floats.
But on this night/morning, Mainieri wanted to call only one name to the mound: Alexander Craig Lange.
Lange wasn’t the most highly touted of LSU’s highly touted crop of freshman pitchers. That was Jake Latz, who suffered an elbow injury and never pitched this season.
But it was Lange who developed into the ace, maturing through the season to where he’s now this year’s reasonable facsimile of Aaron Nola, 11-0 with an ERA now shaved down to a brilliant 1.76.
For a long time, the game reminded of the super regional showdown here two years ago between Nola and Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray. If Lange was in the Nola role, UNCW’s Phillips was Mr. Gray, throwing six-plus brave innings before leaving after surrendering LSU’s first run to Kade Scivicque on a Chris Chinea RBI single in the seventh.
Andrew Stevenson gave Lange a huge insurance run, a 2-0 lead in the ninth on an RBI grounder to first by Jared Foster. First baseman Corey Dick had a play on Stevenson as he engaged warp speed flying toward the plate, but he ate the ball instead for a sure out that left the UNCW dugout groaning.
They knew. The way Lange was dealing, overcoming a 2-0 LSU lead looked like making an ascent up a sheer rock wall.
It was 1:09 a.m., and thousands of hearty LSU baseball loving souls were thundering in his ears and Lange was still bringing heat. Mainieri joked that it was past his team’s curfew, and certainly somewhere the rule-loving NCAA had to make Lange’s parents sign a waiver to allow him to pitch this late, er, early.
“No, I wasn’t going to take him out,” Mainieri said. “I’d probably have had 12,000 people attack me in the dugout.”
After scuffling through the early innings, Lange was at his most spellbinding after the witching hour. He retired 10 of the last 11 Seahawks, five of them on strikeouts, to finish with 12 overall. Pinch hitter Joe Bertone looked like he scarcely had a chance and, after he waved at strike three, Lange lifted both fists into the air in triumph.
Had he ever had a game this good, this meaningful in his young life? No, Lange beamed, but “hopefully we have a couple more to go.”
It’s hard to pick through all the gems LSU baseball has mined over the years, but it may well have been the best pitching performance ever by an LSU freshman in his first NCAA tournament game. At the very least, Mainieri said it was mindful of Anthony Ranaudo’s 14-strikeout, nine-inning masterpiece in a 3-2, 10-inning win over Baylor in the same situation in the 2009 regional.
Now it’s on to the championship game to await the winner of Sunday afternoon’s elimination test between Tulane and UNCW. Not to sell those teams short, but they’d have to beat 50-10 LSU twice, and losing two in a row is something these Tigers haven’t done all season. It certainly seems like a statistical improbability that LSU would do it two seasons in a row in this situation.
The Tigers won’t have Lange to count on again this weekend, but he’s done enough. He protected the marble through some pretty steamy drama, and now it’s up to his teammates to set Lange up with another biggest-yet start in the super regional.