Jared Poché walked off smiling.
LSU walked off a regional winner.
Poché threw a scoreless 8.2 innings of six-hit ball, his defense made some dazzling plays and the Tigers beat UNC-Wilmington 2-0 in a rare matinee Monday at Alex Box Stadium to claim the NCAA Baton Rouge regional.
Poché delivered LSU (51-10) a second straight starting pitching gem, and Chris Chinea, for a second time in two games, had the eventual game-winning, two-out hit as the Tigers completed a 3-0 sweep in this four-team regional to advance to a super regional – get this – against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns, a No. 3 seed in the Houston regional, pulled off the stunning upset and will meet LSU in a best-of-three series at Alex Box Stadium starting Saturday. The prize for the winner: a trip to the College World Series.
“I’ve been here for three years,” said Chinea, a junior from Miami. “I know the rivalry between the two clubs. It’s going to be a great series. We’re looking forward to it.”
Poché (8-1), the Tigers’ sophomore lefty from Lutcher, recorded all but one of the 27 outs in a stunning performance after some recent woes. Reliever Parker Bugg struck out the final batter of the game to start the regional party.
For Poché, it began when he handed Bugg the ball with a runner on second base and two outs in the ninth. He walked slowly to the LSU dugout to a thunderous standing ovation from an estimated 7,000 at the Box
“Pretty indescribable,” Poché said afterward. “Walking off the field with all the fans cheering, couldn’t help but have a grin.”
Everyone was smiling four pitches later, when Seahawks pinch hitter Andy Austin swung and missed on Bugg’s slider. LSU players poured from the dugout, raced to the outfield and then made the traditional victory lap.
“It’s the greatest moment I’ve had at LSU,” third baseman Conner Hale said after the lap.
Hale had one of a trio of defensive gems for the Tigers, running into the UNC-Wilmington dugout to catch a foul popup to start the seventh. Shortstop Alex Bregman made a spinning throw to first in the second, and center fielder Andrew Stevenson made a fully-extended diving grab in the fourth.
Stevenson’s dive – it turned into a double play – warranted a standing ovation and brief celebration between innings in front of the LSU dugout and sent play-by-play man Jim Hawthorne yelling on air, “That’s a catch a human being shouldn’t be able to make.”
Chinea had his RBI double and Fraley hit an RBI single during a two-out rally in the second inning that supplied all the Tigers would need.
LSU players milled about on Skip Bertman Field, celebrating a sweet feeling they didn’t taste last season – a regional loss to Houston that still claws at a team and its coach.
“It’s taken a year for us to exorcise that demon from our mind,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
There are more important matters now than just winning a 21st regional in 28 tries. After all, LSU won the Southeastern Conference regular season, is the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA tournament and consensus No. 1-ranked team heading into the postseason.
The goal is clear – it’s Omaha.
They’ll have to beat an old foe that’s hit a hot run to get here. The Cajuns (42-21) have won eight straight – they trailed in three of those – claiming the Sun Belt Conference tournament to get an automatic bid before a 3-0 run in Houston.
Tickets to the super regional could be some of the hottest ever for a series at the Box. The two schools, separated by an hour’s drive on I-10, have never met in a super regional.
“If the opponent is from an hour away it would even ratchet up the attention more,” Mainieri said in the postgame press conference Monday before the UL-Lafayette game ended.
Times and dates for the super regionals were scheduled to be announced Tuesday morning. The NCAA splits the eight super regionals with four played Friday-Sunday and four on Saturday-Monday.
LSU put in a request to the NCAA to have its super regional begin Saturday since it played Monday.
What else did the Tigers get? Consecutive starts from a pair of pitchers that made history. LSU got shutouts in back-to-back NCAA tournament games for the first time in the rich lore of this baseball powerhouse.
Alex Lange pitched a complete game, six-hitter in a 2-0 win over UNC-Wilmington (41-18) in a game that ended at 1:09 a.m. Sunday morning before Poché nearly equaled the performance Monday afternoon.
In 18 innings against LSU, UNC-Wilmington advanced two runners to third base.
“To shut that team down two days in a row was really amazing to see,” Mainieri said.
Poché did it after some rough recent starts. He had allowed 11 earned runs in the last 11.2 innings entering Monday’s game.
“Wanted to get back to myself,” Poché said. “(Catcher) Kade (Scivicque) and (pitching coach Alan) Dunn said they’ve seen a little different out of me the last two weeks.”
He saved some of his best pitches for last, retiring nine of his final 11 and ending the fifth and the sixth innings with strikeouts with a runner on first base. He hit that career-high eighth K for the second out in the ninth before Corey Dick’s two-out double.
Mainieri made the walk to the mound, pulling Poché and setting up Bugg’s game-ending strikeout.
Poché made his walk to the dugout – smiling, of course.
“I knew today Jared Poché would go out there and be a man,” Mainieri said, “and he was.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.