The tension was as thick as the humid night air hanging over Alex Box Stadium.
LSU was locked in a one-run game late Sunday against Coastal Carolina, a game that would decide whether the Tigers’ season would see another day.
This is where LSU had to succeed or fail. This is where LSU has come through so many times in the past. This is where the opposition so often cracked in the face of the Tigers, their ballpark, their tradition and all their thousands of full-throated fans howling from the stands.
The Chanticleers did crack, committing a huge error in the top of the ninth that eventually led to LSU scoring the tying run to square it at 3. But they were also tough enough to get the win, coming through with the clutch run in the bottom of the ninth for a 4-3 victory that left what minutes before was a rocking Alex Box Stadium stunned.
A leadoff walk to Anthony Marks, a stolen base and a hit to left by Michael Paez that bounded over a helpless Chris Reid’s head at third base — and it was all over bar the shouting and dogpiling by the Coastal players.
And why not? They just made history with their school’s first trip to the College World Series, sweeping LSU in a home super regional for the first time in the process.
A lack of clutch hitting doomed LSU in this one, the Tigers (45-21) seeing their amazing late-season run come to a shattering end.
Four years ago, Stony Brook punctured LSU’s air of invulnerability in these situations. Coastal Carolina, a talented, experienced, clutch team, simply piled on. And for the third time in four years, an LSU team that was a national seed was left with a punch in the gut at the very end.
Never mind that this young, once-scuffling LSU team made an amazing run just to get here, just to be a top-eight national seed. If you’re the Tigers, you’re supposed to win in these situations. Despite the losses in recent years, it’s still shocking when they don’t. The offseason will be long and haunting.
Not to take anything away from Coastal’s victory, but the Tigers had just as much to do with their demise as the Chanticleers did. LSU was a weak 3-of-17 with runners in scoring position in this one, one of those three hits not able to score a run when LSU had to hold a runner at third base in the third inning.
Even when the Tigers did what LSU seemingly always does in these situations by tying Coastal with a run in the ninth, the Tigers did it without benefit of a base hit. There were two huge Coastal errors, the first on a routine grounder to second baseman Cameron Pearcey that allowed Cole Freeman to get aboard and eventually score.
LSU was in a hole from the start. Conventional wisdom said the Tigers needed to score early to set a tone, but instead it was Coastal that popped in front.
Marks scuffled on with a grounder to second that first baseman Greg Deichmann mistakenly dived for, leaving no one to cover first when Marks arrived. He eventually scored, as did Connor Owings on a two-out RBI single by G.K. Young. All things being equal, if Deichmann had covered first, Coastal Carolina might not have scored at all.
Instead the Chanticleers enjoyed a 2-0 cushion that was enough for them to keep LSU at bay most of the night. Coastal starting pitcher Alex Cunningham wasn’t overpowering. The Tigers hit balls hard off him throughout except, it seemed, when they got runners into scoring position. Jared Poché, who pitched 5.1 gritty innings, got the tough-luck no-decision in what may be his final game for LSU.
The Tigers have a lot coming back next year. The 2017 season holds great promise.
But the way 2016 ended will leave a scar, as well as the seared memory of another team celebrating on Alex Box Stadium’s hallowed turf.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.