Josh Smith sat for a long time in the LSU dugout.
He was looking out in the direction of the Ole Miss players, giddily packing up their gear for what would not feel like a five-hour bus ride back to Oxford after a practically indescribable 19-15, 10-inning victory Sunday over the Tigers.
But Smith didn’t see them. He had that glazed-over look, the thousand-yard stare of someone trying to process a huge moment they have just lived through, and where the heck they go from here.
“It’s not fun,” LSU right fielder Antoine Duplantis said, a disbelieving “You’ve got to be kidding me” half-smile plastered on his face. “Somebody had to lose the game. For either team it would be weird loss. We were just on the bad side of it.”
The long-term greatness of a program like LSU baseball is not built on one crushing, overwhelming victory after another. Often it is built on these kinds of games, the games that turn on an out or an error. A strike or a ball. Fair or foul.
LSU baseball erased a six-run deficit in the ninth inning, but Devin Fontenot gave up four runs as the Tigers lost 19-15 on Sunday afternoon.
Throughout the years, LSU has more often than not been on the good side of games like this, possessing the talent and the will and the moxie to turn the coin-flip games to their favor. Good teams and good athletes don’t get the breaks; they make the breaks.
But this team?
“This team has a lot of fight,” Smith said. “But we just seem to be missing that little factor to put us over the edge.”
At 30-18 overall and 14-10 in the Southeastern Conference, LSU is on the edge now, at least as far as being an NCAA regional host is concerned.
The Tigers can likely forget about being a top-eight national seed unless they go on a miraculous run like the 23-game unbeaten streak in 2008, sweeping their last eight regular-season games and then going 4-0 or 5-0 to capture yet another SEC tournament title. Yes, 42-18 or 43-18 with a trophy on the resume might make LSU a national seed, but that seems as improbable as …
… A six-run, two-out comeback in the ninth on three consecutive home runs?
“That,” a sullen LSU coach Paul Maineri said, “was obviously one of the craziest games we’ve ever had.
“You can go a lifetime and not see what you saw there in the ninth inning with back-to-back-to-back home runs. I was really hoping we could win it right there, because in all honesty I knew they’d be hard to stop.
“Fifteen runs and 22 hits and lose the game. It’s a shame.”
LSU was down 15-10 against Ole Miss with two outs in the ninth inning Sunday. Then something incredible happened.
As strange as it may sound after pounding out a Geauxrilla Ball-like five homers total, the Tigers need to become a more consistent hitting team. And they certainly have to figure out their pitching situation. None of LSU’s starters went more than four innings this weekend, an alarming statistic.
Can the Tigers get Cole Henry back for the Arkansas series? Do they keep Zack Hess in the bullpen, returning “Wild Thing” to his closer role of 2017 with Devin Fontenot having delivered his fifth shaky outing since the Missouri series? And what of the Sunday starter? Can LSU stick with Landon Marceaux, or does it turn to someone like Todd Peterson?
So many questions. So little time. As the great Yogi Berra once said, it’s getting late early around here.
“I know everyone loves hitting,” Mainieri said. “But you can’t win if you don’t pitch. Unfortunately, we didn’t pitch well enough today.”
As for the Ole Miss Rebels, this was something more than surviving what would have been an epic collapse and winning a big SEC road series, one that might make them an NCAA regional host instead of the Tigers. They threw the oppressive weight of history off their shoulders, winning their first series in Baton Rouge since 1982, so long ago it was years before Skip Bertman made baseball more than a blip on the LSU radar.
“You didn’t think it would be easy, right?” asked Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, the former LSU catcher and assistant coach. “The first time that you win here in a long time, you’re going to be challenged.
“Obviously, it was some weird circumstances. But I’m just proud of the way we handled it.”
The Rebels almost didn’t handle it. One more home run in the ninth off the bat of LSU’s Gavin Dugas — he hasn’t hit one in injury-limited action this year, but he has power — and Ole Miss is lamenting a meltdown for the ages instead of an historic victory.
“That was crazy,” Bianco said. “No, baseball is crazy.”
Crazy how close two teams can come to basting in the euphoria of the moment — or being left with the thousand-yard stare.