OMAHA, Neb. — As he exited TD Ameritrade Park to a conquering hero’s ovation, Alex Lange smiled and gave a thumbs-up to a grateful band of LSU fans, then slipped out beneath a sign that reads “History Happens Here.”
Boy, it sure did Tuesday.
When you play baseball for LSU, it’s hard to do something no one else has ever done. So Lange did the next best thing in the Tigers’ 5-3 elimination game victory over Cal State Fullerton.
He earned a complete game victory, winning as a true freshman. The only other pitcher to do either was Brett Laxton, who steamrolled Wichita State 8-0 with nine masterful innings in the 1993 College World Series championship game.
The Tigers are still a long way from this year’s championship series, but the fact that they still have a chance to get there is largely due to Lange. The Boy Wonder.
He wasn’t perfect, but he was darned impressive. He threw maybe the best final eight innings any LSU pitcher has put together in Omaha, retiring 25 of the final 28 Titans while allowing just two hits and striking out 10.
“He was dominating,” a relieved LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Lange, who grew up about three hours south of here, just outside of Kansas City, Missouri, said he made one trip “as a kid” to the College World Series. He was 9 or 10, can’t exactly remember the year. All he knew was he always wanted to come back and pitch here.
We have news for you, Alex. You’re 19, so you’re still a kid. Mainieri has ties older than you.
What Lange has is an old soul. When he speaks, you hear a 30-year-old. He may not be old enough to drink legally, but they were raising toasts to him down in Omaha’s Old Market on Tuesday night, you can believe that.
In the first inning, though, Lange appeared to be in serious trouble. And if he were in serious trouble, that meant the LSU Tigers were on the College World Series’ endangered species list.
Lange gave up three runs on four hits in the first. That kind of inning out of Lange is like a Bigfoot sighting. The Tigers trailed 3-0 and looked as though it was time to gas up their NCAA chartered jet for the flight back to Baton Rouge.
LSU fans everywhere may have been chewing off nails, but not Lange. He already had filed his nails Tuesday as part of his pregame ritual — the better to impale you with his now-famous spike curveball, my dear.
For Lange, the deficit was a matter of location, not ability. And certainly nothing to get worried about.
“I wasn’t really, like, nervous or anything, or amped up,” he said. “I left a couple of pitches up, and they do what good hitters do: They hit the ball. I took a step back and regrouped in the dugout and just really focused. I needed to go out there and execute my pitches, just hit my spots where Coach (Alan) Dunn and Kade (Scivicque) call them and leave it up to the defense.”
Lange went away from the fastballs the Titans were hitting and went to his spike curve, a pitch he only mastered as a high school senior.
The Titans looked pretty mortal after that.
“We went to the breaking ball, and he was able to use that as a wipeout, put-away pitch,” Dunn said.
Scivicque and the rest of the LSU batters finally broke the voodoo curse on their bats in this ballpark and knocked Fullerton freshman Connor Seabold out of the game with a four-run third inning.
Giving Lange a lead is the baseball equivalent of putting your money in a Swiss bank. But there was an anxious moment in the fifth when he fell behind 2-0 against CSF leadoff hitter Josh Vargas.
Lange came back from that count like so: strike, foul ball, foul ball, strike. He then induced a pair of fly outs and sailed out of the fifth still holding his lead.
In the dugout, Mainieri turned to hitting coach Andy Cannizaro and said, if the Tigers went on to win, Lange putting away Vargas would be the key at-bat.
“We’re up one run in the fifth,” Mainieri explained. “If he walks the guy, maybe they bunt and some other things happen, they tie the game and we’re fighting for our life.
“Lots of kids have talent. The great ones have a way of raising their game.”
Lange is bumping the top of his purple baseball cap up against the greatness category. He’s 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA and kept his team alive to fight at least one more game. What could be greater than that?
Getting to pitch again in the CWS, most likely. That would probably be Monday, if the Tigers make it to the best-of-three championship series.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.