HOOVER, Ala . — With the huge crowd at the Hoover Met still abuzz from the game that just ended, a member of the grounds crew took a shovel to the letters “LSU” painted on the path between the Tigers’ dugout and home plate.
For the first time since 2012, they won’t be painting them on again for the Southeastern Conference tournament final.
By its impossible standards, LSU is going home early, dispatched Saturday after a 2-1 semifinal loss to Florida. A shot at a third straight tournament trophy, one to place on the shelf next to this year’s regular-season title, evaporated in the final two innings as the Tigers bullpen couldn’t hold the shutout freshman starter Alex Lange protected so long from dangers largely of his own doing.
It’s a screwy old game, baseball.
You get two of the shakiest outings imaginable from your first two starters and win both games.
You get seven shutout innings from your best pitcher and lose.
A team hits a double off the wall with two men on that leads to one run — but also a double play. But what beats you is a home run from the No. 9 hitter the following inning.
And what ends up as a frustrating loss may in the long run be the best outcome of all.
True to the black-is-white nature of this game, the bullpen really didn’t do that badly. Jesse Stallings may have served up the game-winning home run to Florida catcher Mike Rivera to lead off the ninth, but his fastballs were like tracer shots. It was a changeup that got up in the zone, which LSU coach Paul Mainieri said was the called pitch from the dugout. In some ways it was an encouraging outing for the Tigers’ former closer.
“I know it’s going to look like one pitch lost the game,” Mainieri said. “But we needed to have done some other stuff (to win).”
The Tigers stranded eight men, though the biggest blow was in the third when Jake Fraley strayed too far off second and with one out and was picked off. Mainieri said Fraley thought he wasn’t supposed to try to steal third for one pitch, but Mainieri wanted him to stay put for the entire at-bat. Conner Hale and Kade Scivicque came behind him with singles that would have driven him in with a second run.
If that had happened, they might still be playing.
Instead, LSU headed home Sunday to await its NCAA tournament fate. It will also have a chance to rest and rebalance this pitching staff instead of using up who knows how many more arms in the final pursuing the tournament title. Perhaps one of them will now get to start the regional Friday, while LSU saves Lange for the all-important Game 2 on Saturday and likely comes back with Jared Poché to try to win it Sunday.
Back to Lange. He gave up a season-high six walks, but he showed a lot of heart against the top-10 Gators. Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn let him figure out his own fate after putting two on in the seventh. Lange responded by striking out the side. Many of his 100 pitches were clocked in the mid-90s, another sign he’s regained his form from the elbow issues in April.
“I thought Alex Lange was tremendous,” Mainieri said. “He showed great competitive zeal.”
The SEC tournament is an important title to win, but it’s also a crap shoot. It goes single elimination-double-double-single-title game. Florida, which lost in double elimination to Arkansas, lost at the right time. LSU’s timing was poor in a tournament where a team’s fate is subject at least in part to the day of the week. Winning the regular-season title, proven dependability over the long haul, is more meaningful.
LSU (48-10) has proved itself as one of, if not the best, team in the nation. The Tigers will be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall seed when the NCAA field is released Monday. The wise guys of college baseball say it’s between LSU and UCLA.
If the Tigers are No. 1, it’s a first for the program, and firsts are increasingly hard to come by for LSU baseball. If the Tigers are No. 2, well, it matters very little in terms of the opponents in LSU’s path to Omaha. And perhaps being No. 2 is a backhanded blessing in that the No. 1 seed hasn’t won the tournament since Miami did it the very first year of national seeds in 1999.
The Tigers tried their best to win. As they should have. But that they didn’t isn’t the worst thing.
“We’ll get up Monday, watch the selection show and fill ourselves up with positive thoughts,” Mainieri said.
After all, this isn’t the biggest tournament title LSU is after.