OMAHA, Neb. — It all fell apart with one simple toss.
Cody Jones led off the TCU fourth inning by chopping softly back to LSU pitcher Jared Poché.
After three straight hitless innings to start their College World Series opener, it looked as though Poché had won another important battle against TCU’s best hitter.
But Poché had to plant awkwardly on the third-base side of the mound as he aimed his throw toward first to get Jones. Geometry and big-game pressure conspired against him as he launched one of those beach balls that bounce around the TD Ameritrade Park bleachers.
Chris Chinea couldn’t have tracked it down unless he turned into a pole vaulter.
Then Poché uncorked another wild one trying to get Jeremie Fagnan on even easier chopper to the mound, pulling Chinea off the bag.
TCU lives for opportunistic moments like that. The Horned Frogs pounced, both Jones and Fagnan coming home, then capitalized again in the fifth when third baseman Conner Hale botched a grounder by Cody Jones on which he could have easily forced out Keaton Jones at home.
That produced the first run in a four-run fifth for TCU. With the ace of an ace pitching staff in Preston Morrison looking like he was strolling through a midweek bullpen toss, LSU was already doomed in what wound up a shocking 10-3 defeat, though just for good measure Cody Jones scored again on a Kade Scivicque throwing error in the seventh.
It was a thorough, full-body pummeling for the Tigers, who couldn’t seem to help the Horned Frogs enough.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
“Today was just really a totally bad game for us,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who looked like he lost about 10 psi during the course of Sunday’s misery. “I don’t know how else to describe it. Outside of the first three innings of the way Jared pitched, we really didn’t do anything very well today.
“It was just a total collapse for us on a big stage. We picked a rough time to not play our best baseball.”
Houston, LSU really had a problem. The Tigers suffered a triple failure of their most critical systems to suffer their worst CWS loss since a 15-4 hammering by South Carolina in 2004.
Pitching? The bullpen brought cans of gas to the mound, just as was feared it might.
Defense? Probably the worst since the French built the Maginot Line to keep out the Germans. LSU tied a season high with its four errors.
Offense? All the talk coming in of how LSU is better equipped offensively to succeed amid the peculiar demands of TD Ameritrade Park looked like so much blather (and I wrote some of it). That the Tigers managed a program-best three runs in this ballpark is no consolation for a team that has yet to figure out how to win in it in three tries.
The only silver lining for LSU — and it’s a thin one — is that the Tigers didn’t waste a start from freshman ace Alex Lange. Given the way LSU didn’t hit and didn’t play defense, even a stout effort from Lange might have been wasted. And then the Tigers would be in an even bigger fix than they now find themselves in.
“We know we’re a much better team than what we demonstrated today,” Mainieri said.
Certainly that’s true. You don’t win 53 games and the SoutheasternConference regular-season championship with card tricks.
But now the question is, are the Tigers doomed to fall short of the CWS championship series for the second straight appearance?
Frankly, it appears so.
Got to give the Tigers a strong chance to win Tuesday with Lange. But then LSU would have to win three more games to fight out of the losers’ bracket and reach the best-of-three final.
Only three teams in the past 17 years have lost their first game and gone on to win the title: Southern California in 1998 (losing to LSU in its opener before coming back to beat the Tigers twice), Oregon State in 2006 and South Carolina in 2010.
So I’m telling you there’s a chance, slim though it appears to be. But the Tigers were eager to grasp at any straw of hope they could find.
“It’s happened before,” second baseman Jared Foster said. “This is the College World Series, the biggest stage. We’ve got to bring it. We’re not done.”
But as in Sunday’s fourth inning, it won’t take much at this point to push LSU over the brink.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.