This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for the LSU baseball team.
Not the one that started the season ranked No. 1 in some of the national polls.
And not the one that scuffled and struggled through a season of ups and downs and pain and recovery.
Just when the Tigers looked like they were turning a corner, they hit a brick wall. Or, more in keeping with the theme of this weekend’s super regional against Florida State, they were picked off making a questionable baserunning move.
In the end, all the little things that make up a championship team eluded these LSU Tigers in 2019. Up to and including what would have been a redemptive and ultimately surprising trip to the College World Series.
The golden ticket to Omaha, Nebraska, is in Florida State’s hands after beating the Tigers 5-4 in 12 innings Sunday night at Alex Box Stadium.
The baseball season, and LSU’s entire wild-beyond-imagination athletic year, is now over.
A season that began with expectations of Omaha and a seventh national championship ended Sunday evening in heartbreak at Alex Box Stadium.
Now the season of second-guessing begins. Though, like recruiting, that season never really ends when it comes to LSU baseball except when the Tigers go to and then win the College World Series.
Credit these LSU Tigers for fighting back in Game 2 Sunday after letting a 4-0 lead after five innings slip thorough their gloves in a 6-4 Game 1 loss Saturday to the Seminoles.
Apparently what you did not want to do in this series was cruise into the last four innings with a big lead and dominant-looking pitching. Sunday, Florida State was up 4-1 going to the sixth with its best pitcher, CJ Van Eyk, handling LSU inning after inning. The only blemish for the Seminoles’ starter: A solo home run by Antoine Duplantis to lead off the fourth that may have, upon further review, curled in front of the right field foul pole (for the record, a video review upheld the call).
But LSU fought back in fits and starts. It got a run in the sixth, though it could have been more before FSU freshman catcher Matheu Nelson threw behind overzealous LSU freshman Giovanni DiGiacomo at third and picked him off when he took too big a lead.
The Tigers got two more in the eighth, but it could have been more. Zach Watson, who smashed an RBI single through FSU third baseman Drew Mendoza to score Duplantis from third, tried to take an extra base at second and was thrown out on a eyelash-close play.
Mendoza would have his revenge and then some. He came up against the long relieving, gutsy Devin Fontenot in the bottom of the 12th inning (FSU was designated the home team) and lined a single to right to score Mike Salvatore from second.
Salvatore got there on a one-out single, then moved to second on a wild pitch up high that catcher Saul Garza couldn’t handle. In a game played on a knife’s edge, it turned out to be the last, fatal mistake for the Tigers in an evening peppered with them.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, things got very dark very quickly for LSU.
Fontenot was the loser, but gosh he pitched like a winner. He threw 6⅔ innings of relief, striking out 11 in his longest outing of 2019 by far. Somehow, he pitched on and on as other relievers warmed up and sat back down, the chants and cheers from the Alex Box Stadium faithful sending an IV of adrenaline out to him on the mound.
“He’s a warrior,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said admiringly.
Martin, retiring whenever his Seminoles’ time in Omaha ends, has already been installed in Las Vegas as the overwhelming sentimental favorite of this College World Series, having never won a national title.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri has one, but all he has to look forward to now is a summer filled with question marks.
Mainieri took the blame for not telling DiGiacomo not to dance too far off third base in the sixth. But he said he wouldn’t call Watson’s hustle that led him to get thrown out at second in the eighth a mistake.
Unfortunately, it was. When the ball got through Mendoza, it merely creeped into shallow left field. It wasn’t like it rattled around in foul territory.
Then came the matter of not walking Mendoza with first base open in the 12th. Mendoza, FSU’s top RBI man, is arguably the Seminoles’ best hitter and already had a hit and a walk. Mainieri said it was a “pick your poison” situation whether to pitch to him or cleanup hitter Robby Martin, now batting .332, because Mendoza had a higher strikeout rate.
But a walk to get to Martin, 0-for-4 Sunday with a second-inning walk, would have set up forces at second and third. In a tie game in the bottom of the 12th, Mendoza’s run at first base meant nothing.
Ultimately, though, maybe the reason the Tigers pushed the envelope so hard was because they needed some dice rolls to go their way to win a game the caliber of this one.
In the end, LSU found snake eyes. And a long, often tortured season ends in tortured fashion, with the words “If only, if only” ringing in Tiger ears.