They call it The Marble Game, this battle of Game 1 regional winners that so often goes so far to deciding who advances in the NCAA baseball tournament and who goes home to a summer full of regrets.
For LSU and Rice, they could have called it The Dice Game.
Both teams held their very best starting pitchers in reserve for this one, like their best bottle of wine from a well-stocked cellar.
For the Tigers, it was Alex Lange.
For the Owls, it was Jon Duplantier.
The gamble came when the inevitable rain showers moved in on Alex Box Stadium like an advancing army, turning the green ballpark a shiny gray and forcing LSU’s Paul Mainieri and Rice’s Wayne Graham to make gut-churning decisions after a nearly one-hour rain delay.
Come back with your starter or go to the bullpen? Go against conventional baseball wisdom or ride your big horse with so much at stake?
The timing of the rain was the knife’s edge. Mainieri is an unrepentant worrier, and he had to fear that the seemingly inevitable rain would arrive so early and stay so long that he would have no choice but to leave the game up to his sometimes brilliant/sometimes maddening bullpen.
Mainieri went with No. 2 starter Jared Poché in Friday’s regional opener against Utah Valley — remember that game? — holding back his ace card Lange until this one. Win this game and you’re 2-0 and have to be beaten twice not to win the regional. There’s no point in not throwing your best. It’s not to say there’s no tomorrow, but without a win tomorrow is well, looking pretty cloudy, like seemingly all the yesterdays around here.
Fortunately for LSU, it didn’t turn out that way Sunday night. Lange was able to pitch into the ninth, clinging to a 4-2 lead like it was a life preserver before Hunter Newman came on and snuffed out the last Rice threat.
Lange got touched up for a couple of runs, losing a bit of his overpowering stuff while Duplantier seemed to get stronger as he went. The sophomore Lange hasn’t been the freshman Lange. He’s struggled often with his control like a driver on a rain-slicked road, but oh has he battled time and again. He fought out of a big rain-delayed jam in the sixth after giving up a lead off home run to Grayson Lewis to keep LSU’s momentum intact, keeping Mainieri from having to strike the flint of his bullpen and risk a potential fire.
On the other side, Duplantier couldn’t have started much worse. He walked the bases loaded in the first inning before Greg Deichmann steamed a double past first base and under the bench in the LSU bullpen in the right-field corner.
Rice right fielder Charlie Warren made the fatal mistake of making an attempt to pull the ball out from under the bench. That triggered a baseball rule that changed Deichmann’s hit from a ground rule double that would only have scored two runs at the time to one of baseball’s true rarities – an inside-the-park grand slam.
Graham’s gamble came after the rain delay. He pulled Duplantier from the game and went with a middle reliever for one batter before he turned to his stud closer, Glenn Otto. In. The. Sixth. Inning. Such and odd move smacked of desperation but also spoke to the importance of the Owls not falling further behind LSU than they already had.
That move paid off for Graham. The Tigers never scored another run after the first and they only managed six hits. But Rice never managed to catch up thanks to Lange and Newman.
Praise for the new Alex Box Stadium and its field that has taken enough rain this weekend to launch an ocean liner on and still remained playable. But if we’re going to commend the construction and design of The Box, we must also criticize the folly of having the bullpens in play in a modern new ballpark. LSU had a clean slate with which to work on this site. It would have been so easy to put the bullpens out of controversy’s way behind the outfield wall.
On balance, it’s a minor criticism, though.
The biggest problem is there isn’t a retractable roof over the place. Hopefully it won’t be needed Monday, as Rice and SLU do battle for the right to try to beat LSU twice in its home park.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.