When aces like Alex Lange and Konnor Pilkington are on their game, like they were Saturday night at a rocking, rowdy Alex Box Stadium, the margin between victory and defeat is piano-wire thin.
A ball settles into a glove at the very edge of the warning track for a loud third out instead of a three-run homer. A chopper down the line, staying fair by an inch or two, kills a rally. A hand finds the catcher’s cleats instead of home plate. An all-out diving attempt comes up just short. A great pitcher doesn't find his great stuff until it’s one pitch too late.
For so long, LSU ended up on the wrong side of all those little things. And as the Tigers went to bat in the eighth inning of a thrilling 4-3 come-from-behind victory over Mississippi State in the opening game of the Baton Rouge super regional, it looked like they were fresh out of chances.
But of course, in the eighth inning, LSU no longer had to face Pilkington.
“As soon as he came out, we knew we had a chance to come back and win it all,” center fielder Zach Watson said.
Trailing 3-0 going into the eighth, the Tigers found a little Alex Box magic and brought home four runs on four hits to take the lead (and eventually the win) in front of 11,836 delirious fans.
“That’s a game we’ll never forget in these parts, I can promise you that,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’ll be talking about this game 10 years from now.”
Reliever Zack Hess and the Tigers held on in the ninth inning to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series. It was LSU’s 15th consecutive win, and if it extends that streak Sunday, it will carry with it a trip to the College World Series.
The eighth inning started innocently enough, with a leadoff walk by Kramer Robertson against right-hander Peyton Plumee, who had relieved Pilkington in the seventh. It was only innocent for those who didn’t feel what was about to come.
“As soon as Kramer walked, the gates of hell were unleashed,” Lange said. “… This offense is too good to be contained for nine innings and not score.”
Antoine Duplantis followed Robertson with a one-out single, setting up a huge moment for LSU slugger Greg Deichmann: Plumlee tried to sneak a fastball past Deichmann on the outer edge of the plate.
Going into the at-bat, Deichmann said he had a chat with hitting coach Micah Gibbs about what type of sequence he was likely to see from Plumlee.
“He threw the pitch that I was sitting on: a fastball that ran away,” Deichmann said. “… The scouting report was dead-on.”
Deichmann tagged it for an opposite-field, two-run double, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The roar only grew louder when Watson laced a sharp single into left field off Mississippi State closer Riley Self (5-2), scoring Deichmann from second base to tie the game.
The rally snowballed on Mississippi State from there. A single and an intentional walk loaded the bases for Michael Papierski, who delivered in all the ways LSU failed to deliver early in the game: With one out and a runner on third, he put a ball deep into the outfield. Watson scored the go-ahead run easily on Papierski’s sacrifice fly. Suddenly, stunningly, LSU had the lead.
The Tigers had closer Hunter Newman getting loose in the bullpen, but Mainieri opted to stick with Hess (7-1), the freshman, for the top of the ninth.
Mississippi State put a runner aboard against Hess and got the runner to third base with two outs and superstar Brent Rooker in the on-deck circle. But Hess struck out leadoff hitter Hunter Stovall to end the game. Hess hit 96 mph on the stadium radar gun in that final at-bat.
“When you’ve got 13,000 screaming ‘L-S-U!’ in here, it’s going to put a little more electricity in you, for sure,” Hess said. “This place was rocking tonight. I was a little bit amped up.”
A little bit?
“I was a little bit afraid of him, to be honest with you,” Mainieri said. “If I would’ve tried to take him out of the game, I’m not sure I would still be here to talk to you at the press conference. He was like a man possessed.”
In the enormity of the moment Saturday, the little things loomed large.
Lange was his usual dominant self — except for a four-batter stretch in the first inning.
Lange walked Rooker on five pitches, then could not find a putaway pitch against All-SEC shortstop Ryan Gridley, who fouled off a pair of 0-2 pitches before fighting a curveball off the plate into center field for a bloop single.
Cody Brown followed by fouling off a couple of two-strike pitches of his own before working an eight-pitch walk, loading the bases for Jake Mangum.
Lange’s first pitch to Mangum was well inside, drilling the Bulldogs center fielder to bring a run home.
It was an inauspicious start. But Lange locked in after that.
He struck out the next two batters, Hunter Vansau and Elijah MacNamee, to leave the bases loaded, and he commenced mowing down the Mississippi State lineup.
Over the next six innings, the Bulldogs managed just two base runners, both of them on walks. Many of the rest of the at-bats featured Mississippi State players helplessly watching or flailing at strike three as Lange settled into one of his brilliant grooves.
“I thought he was outstanding, and he kept his pitch count down, which allowed him to pitch as late as he did,” Mainieri said. “… He does this all the time. He doesn’t give up; he just regroups and makes big pitches and gets out of jams. He saves your bullpen. He does what Friday night starters are supposed to do.”
WHO: Mississippi State vs. LSU
But that one run allowed loomed incredibly large, because LSU could not take advantage of several opportunities to get it back.
LSU was not able to muster much against Pilkington, a sophomore left-hander who was mixing a mid-90s fastball with a 70- to 72-mph curveball. But when the Tigers did find a spark, State snuffed it out.
The Tigers put a runner at third base with less than two outs in three separate innings and on each occasion failed to bring the runner home.
It looked like that would seal LSU’s fate after Lange gave up a two-run, two-out double to the second-to-last batter he faced.
LSU will send senior left-hander Jared Poché to the mound at 8 p.m. Sunday, a trip to the College World Series within reach. Mainieri said the last thing he wants his team to think about is that it has two chances to win one game.
“We’re going to show up, play as hard as we can for nine innings or more if necessary, and hopefully by the end of the day we’re going to have won the game and make our reservations,” Mainieri said.