Kramer Robertson is very particular about his cleats.
So much so that the LSU shortstop customizes basketball shoes, putting spikes on Nike Air Jordans and the signature sneakers of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He had a debate with himself before Saturday’s Baton Rouge super regional opener against Mississippi State whether he should wear the LeBrons or the Durants.
But he didn’t want to wear the Jordans. He reserves those for championships.
He ultimately decided on the LeBron kicks, but an at-bat in the fifth inning necessitated a change. With Michael Papierski standing on third base after a leadoff double and sacrifice bunt, he weakly grounded a ball to Bulldogs third baseman Cody Brown.
LSU normally runs on contact with one out, coach Paul Mainieri said, but Papierski was caught in no-man’s land. Brown tagged out the Tigers catcher, killing another promising rally in a one-run game.
“I just had a terrible at-bat there,” Robertson said. “I was really disappointed in myself.”
“I was supposed to freeze,” Papierski said. “I messed up. I’ll take ownership for that. I've got to be better on that. It was just a weird play. I was supposed to see it through, and I didn’t.”
So, after that at-bat, Robertson slipped on the Jordans, hoping to conjure some mojo for a team that had wasted a handful of opportunities. Three innings later, Robertson jogged to first base after drawing a leadoff walk on five pitches. He turned toward the dugout and raised his arms in the air, sparking an Alex Box Stadium crowd that had gone quiet after Brown drove a two-run double in the top half of the eighth.
All LSU did from there was score four runs on four hits to grab a decisive 4-3 lead, putting the Tigers one win away from the College World Series.
It must have been the shoes.
“As soon as Kramer walked,” Tigers starting pitcher Alex Lange said, “the gates of hell were unleashed.”
But prior to that eighth inning, virtually nothing went LSU’s way offensively against Bulldogs starter Konnor Pilkington. The Tigers stranded runners at second and third in the fourth with a pop out and a fly out. Then came Robertson’s poor plate appearance and Papierski’s base running blunder in the fifth.
In the sixth, the Tigers grounded into their second double play after Greg Deichmann was hit by a pitch with one out. Beau Jordan was then thrown out at the plate in the seventh when Jake Slaughter flied out to Jake Mangum in shallow center field.
“(Third base coach Nolan Cain) absolutely did the right thing,” Mainieri said of the decision to send Jordan. “The catch makes two outs, so now you’re waiting for a base hit to score him. It’s a one-run game. You got to take your shot. You tip your hat to their kids. They made a great play.”
The Tigers had left eight men on base and were 0 for 6 with two outs. Even some of LSU’s hardest-hit balls off Pilkington were pulled foul. It seemed like LSU would spoil a gem from Lange, who struck out 10 over 7.2 innings in his final start at Alex Box Stadium.
But what the Tigers did do right in the six innings they faced Pilkington was record long at-bats, forcing Bulldogs coach Andy Cannizaro to pull Pilkington for Peyton Plumlee after 102 pitches.
“That was the approach before the game, to try to make him throw as many pitches as we can,” Robertson said. “He’s a great pitcher that throws really hard. Today, he was locating his breaking ball better than he did all year. Normally, he’s 90 percent fastball. Last week, I think he only threw five curveballs. Tonight, not only was he throwing (his curveball) a lot more, he was locating it really well.”
And with Robertson’s patience at the plate, a rally was ignited, energizing a crowd that got louder and louder with each hit. Antoine Duplantis followed Robertson two batters later with a line drive just over Mississippi State shortstop Ryan Gridley’s glove.
Greg Deichmann then drove an opposite-field, two-run double, and Zach Watson evened the score with sharp single to left field. Papierski completed the comeback and redeemed himself in the process with a sacrifice fly to deep center field that scored Watson.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for Pap to come through with that big swing,” Manieri said. “He struggled early in the year offensively, and he never gave up. Nobody works harder than him. … I told him (before the at-bat) that this was his moment. Nobody was going take this moment away from. It was his turn, and he was going to drive in the winning run. And he did do that.”