OMAHA—For most of Louisiana State's dynastic run in the College World Series under Skip Bertman during the 1990s, it was known for its powerful offenses. It was the Gorilla Ball era, and that was how teams won in Rosenblatt Stadium.
The game, the park and the man in the dugout have changed. Now led by Paul Mainieri, LSU has revamped its recruiting strategy, focusing more on speed and athleticism in its position players. The Tigers can turn any game into a track meet and wreak havoc on the base paths.
In a come-from-behind, 5-4 victory against Florida State in its opening game at the CWS on Saturday night, LSU did just that to great success. The victory extended the Tigers' winning streak to 17 games, the second-longest active streak in the country. It also sets up a marquee matchup Monday night in the winners' bracket, where LSU will take on Oregon State, which won its 22nd straight game earlier Saturday. Florida State will face Cal State Fullerton in an elimination game Monday.
LSU's offense ran wild Saturday. The Tigers scored the tying run in the eighth inning as speedsters Cole Freeman and Antoine Duplantis ran wild on the bases as the Seminoles kicked the ball around the field, making three errors on the play. In the first inning, Duplantis scored from first base on a wild pitch on a third strike. For good measure, they also stole two bases.
"Ever since the roster limits and the change in the bats, I think you have to have guys that can run and some athletes out there," Mainieri said. "You get to Omaha, the ballpark plays big, generally, and the way to manufacture runs is to have some speed on the bases."
In Freeman and Duplantis, LSU has two well-above-average runners. Kramer Robertson and Zach Watson also bring premium speed to the lineup, and the Tigers all are well steeped in fundamentals on the base paths, looking to take the extra base whenever possible.
It was that combination of speed and awareness that got LSU on the scoreboard in the first inning. Duplantis drew a two-out walk against lefthander Tyler Holton, bringing Greg Deichmann to the plate. With two strikes on Deichmann, Duplantis took off with the pitch. Deichmann swung and missed on a breaking ball in the dirt and the ball got away from catcher Cal Raleigh. Duplantis, who comes from a family of track and field stars, never slowed down and raced all the way around the bases to score.
"I think that just goes back to the type of athletes we have on this team," Duplantis said. "Like, we just keep putting pressure on defenses because we can run a little bit."
Duplantis, who went 2-for-3 and scored two runs, said he didn't think he had ever been a part of a play like that before. He was in good company. Mainieri said he wasn't sure he'd ever seen anyone score from first on a dropped third strike. Neither had Florida State coach Mike Martin, 73.
"I've seen some things that are crazy, but I never saw a guy score from first base on a strikeout," Martin said. "Tip your hat to them. The guy never stopped. And you just have to know as a coach that it's hard to cover that in practice. What are you going to work on?"
On the other side of the ball, LSU got a solid start from righthander Alex Lange, who worked out of trouble all night. Florida State got the leadoff batter on in six of seven innings against Lange and collected seven hits and four walks against the junior, but he struck out eight batters and held them to four runs.
Mainieri turned to senior lefthander Jared Poche' to follow Lange. Poche' has been a starter throughout his college career but delivered 2.2 critical innings out of the bullpen before freshman righthander Zack Hess got the final out.
Poche' picked up the victory, the 38th of his career. That matches Scott Schultz for the most in LSU history, a record that has stood for 22 years. Poche' had a chance to match the record in each of the last two weeks in Alex Box Stadium but was knocked out early of both his start in regionals and super regionals. That set him up to make history on college baseball's biggest stage.
"Just with all the great pitchers that have come through LSU for me to tie that record and put my name at the top of the list, it's something that's hard to describe," he said. "Obviously, I've been thinking about it all year and been hoping that it would obviously happen the last two weeks. But I guess God had a better plan and wanted it to happen in Omaha."
With its offense inventing new ways to manufacture runs and its top pitchers finding a way to minimize the damage from Florida State's powerful offense, LSU won its first game of the CWS for just the second time in six trips under Mainieri. That puts the Tigers on a collision course with the Beavers, the No. 1 national seed.
Mainieri said he is looking forward to the opportunity to play Oregon State.
"Something's gotta give," he said. "So we'll see. I would like to see you all show up for that game if you're not doing anything on Monday night. It might be a lot of fun."