HOOVER, Ala. — Apparently, the rally possum makes house calls.
It looked like, if he were to rescue the LSU baseball team this time, he was going to have to bring a shovel and dig the Tigers out of a grave of their own creation.
Instead, LSU stormed back somehow for another of its now-patented late-season rallies to stay alive in the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 5-4 victory over Tennessee on Tuesday night. The Tigers are 12-1 in May, seven of those wins by one run.
Not always beautiful. But definitely incredible.
“We did a few fundamental things wrong,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s not for lack of trying. Sometimes youth rears its head. They do a couple things (wrong) here and there.”
Three players thrown out at the plate. Three errors in the field. It looked like the minor speed bump that Tennessee was supposed to be in the Tigers’ tournament opener was going to instead be a roadblock in surging LSU’s headlong rush toward postseason glory.
They played “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” over the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium P.A. system Tuesday night as the Tigers held an impromptu huddle in front of their dugout during the fifth inning down 2-0.
Don’t fear the reaper, perhaps, but fear the Vols and their pitcher, Will Neely.
So happy were the Tigers to avoid a Tuesday encounter with Missouri and its ace pitcher, Tanner Houck, that they may have overlooked the fact that Neely battled LSU ace Alex Lange toe-to-toe in a 2-1 Tigers victory May 13. He went seven strong innings then, allowing just one run, and was back out to baffle LSU again in this one.
After being kept off-balance and uncomfortable inning after inning by Neely’s somewhat herky-jerky pitching motion, the Tigers started to piece together a one-out rally in the fifth as Greg Deichmann walked and Beau Jordan shook off his gruesome hitting slump with a sharp single to left that pushed Deichmann to third.
Cole Freeman was then called on to make a squeeze bunt. His bunt ballooned too far up the first-base line, allowing first baseman Jordan Rodgers to swoop in and throw out Deichmann at home. Antoine Duplantis singled up the middle, but Brodie Leftridge gunned Jordan out at home with a pinpoint throw from center.
Two hits. One walk. Nothing to show for it.
Turns out it was only a tremor that precipitated the dramatics to come.
LSU finally struck in the sixth, at last chasing Neely from the mound when Bryce Jordan laced a lead off double in the seventh into the left-field corner. He would score on a double to right center by Deichmann, who would score on an RBI single by Freeman. He scored on an RBI single by LSU’s mojo man, shortstop Kramer Robertson, but just before Antoine Duplantis was thrown out at home by left fielder Vincent Jackson as he tried to speed in from second.
Three runs for LSU, but three men thrown out at home plate.
Desperation time for the Tigers? Perhaps. But after a scoreless eighth, Deichmann tied it at 4 with a mammoth blast to center off a Hunter Martin offering that came in traveling at 94 mph and exited even faster. Long-time LSU baseball publicist Bill Franques said it was the longest home run ever hit by the Tigers here and harkened back to a mammoth three-run homer by Matt Clark against South Carolina in the 2008 SEC opener.
What happened next seemed inevitable. Beau Jordan walked and was sacrificed to second before giving way to pinch runner Brennan Breaux. He scampered to third on a wild pitch before intentional walks to Duplantis and Jake Fraley loaded the bases.
Next came Robertson, he of two errors on routine plays, sizzling at himself inside. He whiffed on two Martin offerings, then laced a 2-2 screamer past the bag at third to bring Breaux home with the game-winner.
“I missed this tournament last year,” Robertson said. “I was sitting at home watching my teammates have fun out here. I told myself I would be out on the field (this year) and help my team win.”
Without this win, it was going to be a nervous six days at LSU as the Tigers would have been sent home to sweat out the NCAA tournament selection process until Monday. Not that a defeat would have knocked LSU out of the tournament. Zero chance that would have happened. But it could have given the NCAA an excuse not to extend seven regional bids to the SEC. With Vanderbilt and Ole Miss winning their lose-or-go-home games Tuesday, LSU may have handed the NCAA an out.
Now, the committee has even more to chew on than before.
Perhaps the shiniest silver lining for LSU in this game may have been the pitching of starter Jake Latz. Mainieri went with the oft-injured but now apparently whole freshman lefty instead of rushing Lange back on short rest after his rain-shortened start Thursday in the series opener against Florida. Latz responded with two scoreless innings of one-hit ball and should be an asset in the NCAA tournament.
And maybe, still, in the SEC tournament if LSU gets to Sunday’s championship game.
It will be a hard road. Florida is next, no doubt still smarting from losing the series at LSU last week. It promises to be a great pitching matchup between Lange and Florida’s A.J. Puk.
Who do you like — a fearsome Gator or a rally possum?
All we know is this: The Gators haven’t been on the field yet, but the possum has come to play.