Out of pain, this LSU baseball team found resilience.
Out of losses, it found new and ultimately unprecedented ways to win.
Out of town, the Tigers found an on-ramp to staying on the road in the NCAA tournament for another improbable weekend — and take coach Paul Mainieri on at least one more magical ride before he retires.
Out of superlatives? Not to worry. There will be more time to make some up after LSU’s pulse-pounding 9-8 win late Monday night over Oregon to capture the Eugene regional. And before the Tigers wing over to the other side of the country to take on Tennessee in this weekend’s super regional.
This is LSU’s 15th super regional since supers were added to the NCAA tournament format in 1999, second only to Florida State’s 17. So many super regionals, in fact, participation in them is usually something Tigers and Tiger fans rarely bother to have them framed and mounted as most other schools do.
This year is different. This LSU team opened 1-8 in Southeastern Conference play, the Tigers’ worst start since 1969. Such a bad start, it was a reasonable if incredulous question whether LSU would even make the SEC tournament, much less the NCAA.
The Tigers did, just, and only had the proverbial cup of coffee before being bounced by Georgia in Hoover. It looked like LSU would suffer the same fate in the regional after getting schooled 3-0 in Friday’s regional opener by Gonzaga and its soft-throwing ace, Alek Jacob.
“A lot of people I’m sure have counted us out,” Mainieri said. “Baseball isn’t an easy game to play, and sometimes it looks like you’re not trying when you fail. It’s a humbling game. After the kind of game the Gonzaga pitched against us the first night, I’m sure a lot of people gave us up for dead.”
One more loss and the Tigers, and Mainieri, would be done. But they won. And won. And won. And won. Winning a regional on the road for the first time since that epic triumph at No. 1-ranked Texas A&M in 1989. Winning a regional for the first time ever after losing the first game.
How? Landon Marceaux, who pleaded for a chance to get the ball in relief Monday night after yet another brave start/hard luck loss Friday, explained rather well, starting with the “R” word.
“It’s just the resiliency,” he said. “This team wants to win. We’ve had really tough breaks all season. The ball didn’t bounce our way, or the pitch wouldn’t be made, or we were one at bat away from a big hit. We were so close all year. We just kept fighting back to be in position (Monday) night.”
Folks who turn their noses up at college baseball should be forced to watch a replay of this showdown and then be dared not to be converted by its thrilling volleys. LSU led 2-0 in the first inning, fell behind 5-2 in the fourth, took a 6-5 lead in the sixth, fell behind 7-6 in the seventh, took a 9-7 lead after eight and held on in the ninth.
Trailing Oregon by a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers scored three to retake the lead for good in a back-and-forth game and win the NCAA Eugene regional.
The Tigers of March or April might have cracked along one of their many fault lines. Instead, it was Oregon that was left shattered. With Cade Doughty at third and Cade Beloso at first, Ducks bullpen ace Kolby Somers became obsessed with holding Beloso on at first — Beloso, who hadn’t even tried to steal a base all season.
Mainieri suckered Oregon in by putting on a bunt play with Jordan Thompson that he eventually waived off. But the Ducks still took the bait. Somers finally made one too many throws to first as first baseman Gabe Matthews started crashing down to cover the bunt that now was as unlikely as Beloso bolting for second.
Somers tossed the ball to Matthews, but with him off the base it was a textbook balk that sent Doughty home and Beloso to second. Thompson then smacked an RBI single to center to score pinch-runner Will Safford from second with what proved to be the winning run.
“Had the hitter executed a simple bunt we would get the out at home,” Oregon coach Mark Wasikowski said. “To sit back and give up the (tying run) or the win — we’re not giving anybody anything. We use plays designed to eliminate runs and win games. It didn’t work tonight and we’re very disappointed. But we’ll never back down from anything designed to help us win.”
It’s a great philosophy, except in this this case, Wasikowski outsmarted himself. Mainieri, the crafty coach on his way out, embodied that David Mamet line about “old age and treachery,” and it paid off handsomely like a long-shot thoroughbred.
Now LSU is off to Tennessee, where it was swept in March, but only by four runs, twice in extra innings.
The odds are against the Tigers. Again. But after Oregon, counting LSU out prematurely looks like a foolish assumption.