Between the raindrops, around the bases, seemingly around the clock, with a growling Bulldog constantly nipping at their ankles, the LSU Tigers were determined to let nothing stand between them and the manifest destiny they’ve obsessed over for a year now.
Thanks to rain delays and runs and walks galore, Sunday’s Game 2 of the NCAA tournament’s Baton Rouge super regional didn’t end until well after Monday, June 12 arrived. That, fittingly, made it exactly one year since LSU was eliminated on their very same Alex Box Stadium field by Coastal Carolina in last season’s super regional matchup.
That the Chanticleers went on to be Cinderella by capturing a surprising College World Series championship did nothing to dampen the returning Tigers’ angst. The picture of the Coastal players dogpiling and dancing on LSU’s turf, in essence dancing on the grave of the Tigers’ 2016 season, was too much to bear.
So for an entire year, they plotted, they planned, they convinced one another to return for one more run. Then did a slow burn like a fire in a coal seam, fueling them through the rocky middle part of the season when Omaha seemed more like a distant star than a realistic goal.
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Now, senior shortstop Kramer Robertson, one of the key players who came back for one more, can replace that image of the Chanticleers celebrating behind him on his cell phone while he mourned.
“I hated that picture,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
“I hated that picture, too,” Robertson said. “I never have to think of that again.”
Perhaps a selfie of himself in front of the big statue outside TD Ameritrade Park would be a nice change.
That’s in Omaha. Back home in Omaha, as Todd Thibaud’s song once told us. It’s the Tigers’ final and ultimate destination.
College baseball’s promised land.
Neither Mother Nature nor a small army of Mississippi State pitchers could stop LSU on its q…
“We’re going to go up to Omaha,” Mainieri said. “And we’re going to make you proud.”
It’s only been two years since LSU’s last trip, but it must have seemed like an interminable wait for these Tigers. Still, considering that it came after having to rally for 4-3 and 14-4 wins over Mississippi State, LSU’s most bitter and ancient baseball rival, perhaps the struggle and the wait were all worth it. More satisfying it must be to beat a covetous cousin like the Bulldogs with so much at stake than a stranger like Coastal Carolina.
As was the case Saturday night, the Tigers reached the middle part of this game trailing the Bulldogs by a run. LSU quickly jumped on State starter Jacob Billingsley and his first reliever, Trey Jolly, for a 3-0 lead while Tigers starter Jared Poché mowed ’em down in the first couple of frames.
Then Poché did a pratfall on the mound delivering a pitch and never quite seemed the same. The clockwork in his pitching motion seemed to pop like a broken spring and suddenly he couldn’t get the ball over the plate. State chased him with what turned into a four-run third inning to go ahead 4-3.
Caleb Gilbert, the man who may have the best stuff on LSU’s pitching staff, came in to calm the uprising. He gave up a couple of RBI singles for runs that were charged to Poché but then shut down the dangerous Bulldogs, retiring 17 of the last 18 he faced through the eighth inning.
“That was a critical part of the game,” said Gilbert, who has quietly tiptoed out of the Tigers’ bullpen to win four of their last 10 contests. “They had all the momentum on their side. I focused on getting first-pitch strikes, got out of (the inning) and that set a tone the rest of the way.”
As in the fateful eighth Saturday, LSU seemed to gather up its offensive strength for one decisive blow. This one came in the fifth. The Tigers sent 10 men to the plate and scored six runs thanks in large part to three Mississippi State walks and big RBI doubles by catcher Michael Papierski and Robertson to take a 9-4 lead.
The Bulldogs, who had a remarkable run to get this far after a season filled with pitching injures, seemed to have the wind knocked out of them after that. Gilbert cruised inning after inning until senior closer Hunter Newman, staked by a 10-run lead, came out for an anticlimactic ninth as several LSU starters took curtain calls.
“I expect them to win a national championship,” State coach and last year’s LSU assistant Andy Cannizaro said. “They’re the most dynamic team in the country. One through nine they put so much pressure on you. They don’t stop coming.”
They certainly won’t stop here. It’s on to Omaha to face Florida State in an opener either Saturday or Sunday, a Seminoles team that advanced by crushing Sam Houston State 19-0 Sunday. No. 1 seed Oregon State is also in the bracket, as is Cal State Fullerton.
“This isn’t the end,” Robertson said. “We’re ready to go.”
Do the Tigers have their work cut out to try to even get a chance for a seventh CWS title? Sure. But you wouldn’t relish having to play this team, a team that has been building to this moment for a year now through their experience, their tears and finally their triumph.
After sweeping Mississippi State in the Baton Rouge super regional, what’s next for the LSU …
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