On a sunny Saturday afternoon, things got very dark very quickly for LSU.
Solar-eclipse dark. Sudden-thunderstorm-booming-across-the-Mississippi dark.
It all looked so great for LSU after five innings in Game 1 of its super regional against Florida State on Saturday at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers scratched single runs in the second through the fifth innings and took a four-run lead before the Seminoles could even manage a hit.
Turned out, though, it was all a mirage, like heat shimmering off the distant hot pavement in summer. Turned out, freshman starting pitcher Cole Henry started experiencing arm soreness yet again in the first inning and was gone after the second.
LSU had a three-run lead in the seventh inning, but Florida State hit two late home runs to win the first game of the NCAA super regional.
Shelve your concerns about whether Henry could possibly recover to pitch for LSU in the College World Series. That is one more loss away from being the granddaddy of moot points after Florida State stormed past the Tigers for a 6-4 victory Saturday.
It’s bad enough to lose Game 1 of a super regional. According to an ESPN graphic — a graphic from the same stable of graphics that identified LSU’s coach as "Mike Mainieri," but I digress — the team that wins Game 1 advances to the CWS 79 percent of the time.
“Heartbreaking,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, referring to pulling Henry after two innings.
He could have easily been referring to the whole afternoon.
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Now at 40-25, the Tigers have experienced a lot of frustrating defeats in 2019. But this come-from-ahead loss will have to rank right up there for the way it happened and the critical juncture of this season.
Cue the ominous ballpark organ music:
Not only did the Tigers look like they were cruising to victory, they had to burn through five of their top six or seven bullpen arms in relief of Henry with Todd Peterson, Trent Vietmeier, Devin Fontenot, Zack Hess and Ma’Khail Hilliard.
Mainieri (Paul, not Mike) said it would be all hands on deck to try to win the do-or-die Game 2 at 5 p.m. Sunday, but for sure LSU can’t ask Peterson to pitch again after he threw a season-high 79 pitches.
Mainieri may also not be able to count on Vietmeier, either. Not after he served up the three-run home run to FSU’s Reese Albert in the seventh that probably cracked a Spanish tile on the roof of LSU’s new weight room behind the right-field bleachers (hey, kid, that thing’s not paid for yet).
Fontenot (16 pitches), Hess (27) and Hilliard (eight) are relatively fresh. But Hess served up yet another home run to Albert (his 15th allowed this season) and Fontenot threw one of LSU’s 10 walks in his brief one-third of an inning.
LSU pulled starting pitcher Cole Henry from the first game of the NCAA super regional after two scoreless innings.
LSU can blame walks and base-running blunders for its demise. Issuing 10 walks should get you beat, and the Tigers ran themselves out of a potentially bigger inning in the fourth when catcher Saul Garza missed the bag rounding second on a double by Cade Beloso (changed by rule to a fielder’s choice). Garza was called out on an appeal throw.
“We squandered a couple of opportunities early to extend the lead and kept them in the game,” Mainieri said.
As for the Seminoles, their amazing and sentimental story continues as home run power atoned for three potentially lethal errors.
Led by retiring coach Mike Martin, Florida State was one of the last four teams in the tournament field of 64. The Seminoles bashed their way through the Athens (Georgia) regional as the No. 3 seed with three double-digit scoring performances. Now the Noles are one win away from being one of the last eight still playing.
Martin, who has never won a national championship and has probably experienced as much NCAA tournament heartbreak as any coach ever, knows his team isn’t in the College World Series yet.
“We can’t fall in love with ourselves,” he said. “We’re playing in front of the loudest fans I’ve ever played in front of in 45 years of coaching.”
Saul Garza missed second base.
Those LSU fans will have to bellow loud and hard to help pull their Tigers through that 21-percent knothole of teams that advance in this situation.
That said, LSU has bucked that statistic about as well as anyone. Since the super regional era began in 1999, the Tigers have lost Game 1 five times. Twice, against Baylor in 2003 and UC Irvine in 2008, LSU came back to go to Omaha, Nebraska.
The Tigers’ task is not impossible, but certainly daunting as could be. A check of the gauges on LSU’s dashboard shows the Margin of Error level hovering just above “E.”
The Tigers need a great starting effort from freshman pitcher Landon Marceaux and probably some pinpoint bullpen work from Matthew Beck, the prime relief pitcher who didn’t see action Saturday.
And even at that, LSU may be facing an uphill slog against a Florida State team that has that 2012 Stony Brook, 2016 Coastal Carolina look of destiny about it.
“It’s been done before,” shortstop Josh Smith said.
Who's starting, how to watch and what to watch for during game two of the super regional between LSU and Florida State.
True enough. But amid the lengthening shadows of Alex Box Stadium as Saturday afternoon turned to night, the light on LSU’s season looked quite dim indeed.