OMAHA—Last summer was a tumultuous time for Baton Rouge, between a police shooting and its subsequent fallout and the massive flooding that displaced thousands.
Louisiana State head coach Paul Mainieri remembers his wife, Karen, turning to him at one point during all of it and saying, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if you could go out and win the national championship this spring to unify the community and give them something to be happy about and proud of?”
No, a sports title can’t erase problems, but for a community as invested and passionate about athletics as LSU is, it certainly doesn’t hurt. It can help heal. The power of sports in Baton Rouge was clearly apparent over the last two weeks, as LSU fans smashed attendance records and entrenched themselves in Omaha for the College World Series. There was a dash of purple and gold at every bar and restaurant, on every street corner—often more than a dash. In the CWS finals with Florida, the stadium almost looked and felt like Alex Box.
Yet those Tigers fans, as passionate as they were, couldn’t quite will them to victory. And the Tigers, as much as they wanted to win for them, couldn’t quite deliver. LSU lost, 6-1, for the second straight night Tuesday, falling to the Gators, who claimed their first-ever CWS title.
For Mainieri, the loss was an incredibly tough pill to swallow, especially given how close the Tigers were—far closer than that 6-1 final score would indicate. Still, the emotional head coach expressed his pride in his players’ efforts and tenacity and said he hopes the people of Baton Rouge share in that feeling, too.
“Even though we came up a little bit short, two victories short, I think we did a lot of things this year to make the people in our community proud and our state proud,” Mainieri said. “We’ve won five different championships, won our bracket out here, and we just lost a couple of heartbreaking games in the finals. But I know all the players in that clubhouse gave it everything that they had. And I don’t think they have anything to be ashamed of. And I hope that the people of Louisiana and in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, et cetera, are proud of our team.
“I think they should be. They’re a great group of kids. They’re wonderful young men. And this is just the cruelty of what we do.”
To even make it to the finals, the Tigers (52-20) had to find a way to win back-to-back games against an Oregon State team that had lost only four games the entire year. They somehow managed it, riding the pitching of starters Alex Lange and Caleb Gilbert and electric freshman closer Zack Hess to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Yet the following two games for the LSU Tigers were maligned by missed opportunities. Every key decision and close play broke in the Gators’ favor.
It started in Game 1, a 4-3 loss, when the Tigers tried to squeeze one more scoreless inning out of fifth-year senior Russell Reynolds, despite the fact he had only thrown 14.2 innings on the year and was making his first start of 2017. After throwing up three zeros, he walked three batters in the fourth, and the Gators capitalized. Mainieri said after the game he realized then he had been too greedy.
On Tuesday night, the opportunities were rare—but LSU had them. In both the seventh and eighth innings, the Tigers had chances to tie the game yet couldn’t come through.
In the seventh, with LSU behind 2-1 and the tying run on third, Michael Papierski grounded into a double play, and Josh Smith raced home. But just when Smith came across the plate, the second-base umpire Steve Mattingly called him back. He ruled that baserunner Jake Slaughter interfered on the play, sliding directly into shortstop Dalton Guthrie. Mainieri came out to argue—but to no avail.
“My baserunner told me he did slide directly into the base,” Mainieri said. “The umpire told me he didn’t. So somebody’s not telling the truth to me. I don’t know who it is. We’ll find out, though, I can assure you of that.”
In the eighth inning, again with runners on first and third, Greg Deichmann grounded to first baseman J.J. Schwarz, who reacted quickly and fired home, catching speedy Kramer Robertson—again the potential tying run—at the plate. A half-inning later, Florida figured out Hess and the Gators lead ballooned to 6-1.
“You just always believe that you’re going to find a way, and we had our opportunities in the seventh and eighth inning there,” Robertson said. “Unfortunately, it was a weird play in the seventh inning that I’ve never seen, and in the eighth inning we got it going again. We just didn’t get it done. Those guys have blown them up in the same situation, again, they’ve been getting the job done their whole career, there’s nobody else I’d rather have up there. Just didn’t work out for us today. And it’s unfortunate, but we’re holding our heads high.”
It didn’t seem like LSU’s night from the get-go. The very first defensive play of the game was an error by first baseman Nick Coomes—one of two costly errors Coomes made in the first two innings before he was replaced defensively by Slaughter.
That saddled senior starter Jared Poche’ with an early deficit. After becoming LSU’s all-time wins leader with his 39th career win earlier in the CWS, Poche’ wouldn’t get his 40th, despite another gritty effort (5.2 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K) on the mound.
“As a pitcher, the only thing you can control is once you let go of the baseball,” Poche’ said. “You can’t control anything that happens after that. So, you know, I just stuck with that. And guys have been making plays for me all year, my entire career. Unfortunately, kicked the ball around a little bit, but these guys—I’d go to war with all these guys on this team. Like coach said, we just came up a little bit short. And that’s it.”
Poche’ said the hardest part of the loss is knowing he wouldn’t be sharing the field with this group of players again. Robertson, a fellow senior who dyed his hair blonde in an attempt to spark his team, echoed those sentiments. He fought back tears as he talked about just how much this LSU team—and his entire LSU career—meant to him.
“It’s a special team. It’s tough,” Robertson said. “Like Poché said, you don’t get to play with them again. I think that’s the hardest thing. You always think you’re going to win it. And the finality of it all is tough. But I’m at peace with my career, as I’m sure Jared is, as well. I gave everything I had to this university and to this team. It’s tough to think it’s over.
“I gave everything I had. Poché gave everything he had, and we just didn’t win the national championship.”