OMAHA, Neb. — Most of the 25,305 fans who took in Saturday’s College World Series matchup between LSU and Florida State had not made it to their seats by the time Dylan Busby’s two-run homer settled way beyond the center field wall.
From LSU’s perspective, much of Saturday night's game in a sold-out TD Ameritrade Park was defined by its slow start. The Tigers found themselves in a two-run hole in the top of the first inning, and their usual band of raucous friends were late to the party.
Some fans said their gates didn’t open until 6:30 p.m. for a game that started at 7:06 p.m., leading to whole sections of empty seats at first pitch of the Tigers' tense, nail-biting, come-from-behind 5-4 victory — their first opening-game win at the College World Series since 2009.
The first 7½ innings were sleepy and worrisome for LSU, which trailed 4-3 when it came to bat in the bottom of the eighth. Then a beach ball happened, and LSU (49-17), its team and its faithful, woke up.
“It was a little bit of a bizarre game,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
It’s been a thing for LSU in recent years, hasn’t it? Memorable rallies sparked by the weirdest possible object or creature. Last year, it was a possum with its teeth gnashing. Saturday it was a stray beach ball that found its way onto the grass in right field, and there is a clear line of demarcation in Saturday’s game between pre-beach ball and post-beach ball.
Pre-beach ball, LSU never led. Twenty-two minutes post beach-ball, a wide-eyed crowd roared to life, wildly celebrating the Tigers' latest rally and finish — one that put them on course for a clash with No. 1 Oregon State in a winners bracket game Monday night.
With Cole Freeman on first base and Antoine Duplantis at the plate in the bottom of the eighth, the beach ball made its way to the field from the right-field bleachers. Florida State right fielder Steven Wells picked it up, tossed it back into the crowd and went back to his position.
The next time Wells was in action, he allowed Duplantis’ single to roll under his glove. When Freeman and Duplantis both advanced on his mistake, he compounded his first error by uncorking a wild throw to second base, allowing Freeman to score the tying run.
“It was one of those freak plays I’ve never seen in baseball honestly, but it happened today,” Florida State starting pitcher Tyler Holton said. “It kind of describes tonight.”
That play chased Holton from the game. Holton, to that point, had done a marvelous job keeping the Tigers at bay, especially against LSU slugger Greg Deichmann, who he held to an 0-for-3 night with a pair of strikeouts.
Florida State went to left-hander Alec Byrd against Deichmann, hoping for a similar result — but Deichmann’s seeing-eye single through the right side scored Duplantis for the go-ahead run.
“I had to wipe those first three at-bats clean and get the job done,” Deichmann said.
That made a winner out of LSU senior Jared Poché, who entered the game in relief of starting pitcher Alex Lange in the seventh inning. The win was Poché’s 11th of the season and 38th of his career, tying Scott Schultz for the most all-time by an LSU pitcher.
“It’s unbelievable," Poché said. "With all the great pitchers that have come through LSU, for me to tie that record and put my name at the top of the list, it’s something that is hard to describe.”
Mainieri was going to let Poché finish it out. But the lineup turned over, bringing some dangerous hitters up to the plate. Mainieri turned instead to his electric freshman right-hander Zack Hess.
Florida State had a chance to erase that beach ball narrative when it brought Busby up to the plate with two outs and the tying run in scoring position in the ninth inning. But Hess struck him out to preserve the win.
“For a true freshman to come in there in that environment in that situation to face that hitter. … Zack was amazing,” Mainieri said.
LSU will face Oregon State at 6 p.m. Monday. Oregon State is the only team with a longer current winning streak (22) than LSU’s (17).
“Something’s got to give,” Mainieri said. “We’ll see.”
LSU already beat Oregon State in one respect Saturday night, winning a coin toss to earn status as the home team for Monday’s game.