Neither Mother Nature nor a small army of Mississippi State pitchers could stop LSU on its quest for Omaha, Nebraska.
“That train is rolling,” said Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro in defeat. “I expect them to win the national championship.”
At 1:36 a.m. Monday, exactly five hours after Mississippi State’s Jacob Billingsley threw the first pitch of the second game of the Baton Rouge super regional, Hunter Newman incited a raging purple pile of humans on the mound at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers celebrated securing their 18th trip to the College World Series when he got Hunter Stovall to pop up to second base, cinching a 14-4 victory.
“We’ve always known that everybody expected that out of us,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I know at various points along the way, some people doubted we could do it, but we never lost hope, we never lost belief that we had a team that was capable of doing it. I think what we’re doing now is what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Individual games frequently mirror entire seasons. Like much of their path to this point, there were high points and low points for the Tigers on Sunday night and early Monday morning. It was neither easy, nor was it always pretty.
But, as it has consistently shown during the latter part of this season, LSU (48-17) had better closing speed than its opponent.
The Tigers outscored Mississippi State (40-27) 11-0 over the final five innings. Of the 190 pitches they saw from eight Bulldogs pitchers, they ripped 10 for hits and took 10 for free bases. They endured misting showers in the early innings, a brief but violent storm that caused a 31-minute rain delay near midnight, and for good measure, a troll job of a 28-minute rain delay that took the game well past 1 a.m. with two outs in the top of the ninth.
After sweeping Mississippi State in the Baton Rouge super regional, what's next for the LSU …
Next on the checklist: A date with Florida State on Saturday in their first game of the College World Series in Omaha.
With a set of protective goggles resting on his head, completely drenched in some celebratory liquid from the celebration in the LSU locker room, Kramer Robertson was still coming to grips with the moment.
“To have that experience tonight is something I’ll never forget. It’s why I came back to school, it’s why we all came to LSU,” Robertson said.
It looked like LSU would be in line for an hours-long coronation the way it came out of the gates, knocking Billingsley out of the game after he faced just four batters. Three of those four picked up base hits, giving LSU a 2-0 lead.
The Tigers added one more in the second inning. But, staked to an early 3-0 lead, Jared Poché was not able to hang on in his final start at Alex Box Stadium.
The senior left-hander cruised through the first two innings on just 26 pitches, but he suddenly lost his ability to locate home plate umpire Bill McGuire’s strike zone in the third inning.
He walked Josh Lovelady on four pitches to start the inning, then served a 3-2 fastball on a platter to No. 9 hitter Harrison Bragg, who launched it down the left-field line for a two-run homer.
After Stovall’s missile was snared by a leaping Kramer Robertson, Poché walked the next three hitters on five pitches, four pitches and seven pitches. Mainieri lifted Poché in favor of Caleb Gilbert (6-1) after his first pitch to Jake Mangum sailed high and wide.
“I felt for him. I really didn’t want to take him out of the game, but I had to do what was best for the team,” Mainieri said. “He understood that.”
Gilbert allowed a pair of singles that brought two runs home and gave MSU a 4-3 lead, but he stranded the bases loaded with a strikeout and a groundout.
Poché and Gilbert required 47 pitches to get through that third inning, 25 of which were called balls.
The lesson: Free passes will often come back to haunt you. If Mississippi State was taking notes, it still managed to fail the exam.
Freshman Denver McQuary, the fourth Mississippi State pitcher of the game, walked three of the first four batters he faced in the fifth inning, loading the bases and leaving himself no wiggle room against LSU catcher Michael Papierski.
This has been a familiar situation for the junior catcher, who drove in what proved to be the winning run Saturday. He is starting to develop a reputation with the LSU faithful, causing Mainieri to flash back to the days Blake Dean terrorized pitchers in an LSU uniform.
“It was reminiscent for me — and I told him this — of 2008 when Blake Dean would come to the plate and the anticipation of the crowd,” Mainieri said. “I used to think, ‘Boy, this poor kid. If he doesn’t come through with the big hit here, he’s going to let everybody down.’ Blake invariably would come through with the big hit.”
The roar from the announced crowd of 11,706 did not make Papierski’s heart flutter.
“When I was hitting, I didn’t hear anybody,” Papierski said.
Papierski went to the plate hunting for a fastball. He swung through the first one, a good offering. But he didn’t miss the second one.
He yanked a missile down the first-base line that glanced off the top of Brent Rooker’s outstretched glove and rolled into foul territory for a two-run double.
This marked the beginning of the end for Mississippi State.
A Jake Slaughter single and a Robertson double brought three more runs home, and Robertson wheeled around to score with the help of Mississippi State’s second error in as many innings. Entering Sunday’s game, the Bulldogs had gone 10 straight games without committing an error.
LSU scored six runs on just three hits in that decisive fifth inning.
“We maximized our opportunities tonight,” Robertson said.
Gilbert would succeed where Poché failed to hold the lead. After giving up the two bases-loaded singles, Gilbert went into shutdown mode. He retired 15 consecutive Mississippi State batters after those hits, and 17 of his last 18.
“He put the team on his back, steadied the ship. We knew we were going to hit more … but we just needed to know we were going to hold them,” Mainieri said.
He burned the corner with a 91 mph heater to strike out Elijah MacNamee on his 83rd and final pitch, handing a five-run lead over to Newman in the ninth inning.
In that ninth inning, Mainieri was able to do something he dared to dream of the night before. It was a move he has pulled before with his team ahead by a comfortable margin in the final inning.
Greg Deichmann, Cole Freeman and Robertson took the field to start that inning. All squatted and took in their surroundings in their final moment on the Alex Box Stadium turf as their replacements began a slow jog to take their place.
Hugs were shared as warmup pitches were being thrown. The trio walked off the field arm-in-arm, raising a hat as a thank you to the thousands of fans who remained into the wee hours of Monday morning to see LSU clinch a trip to the College World Series.
They took a perch on the top step of the dugout and watched as the Tigers punched their ticket. When Rankin Woley caught the final out, they pulled one last veteran move and waited until the dog pile was fully formed before jumping on at the very top.
It was nearing 2 a.m. when they did that. Amid the rain, the ups and downs of a season and a career seeking this moment, they could stand the wait.
“I waited my entire baseball career, my entire life to experience that dog pile and win a super regional,” Robertson said. “So I could wait through a couple rain delays, wait a little longer.”