OMAHA—For a moment at least, Paul Mainieri’s faith wavered. Fortunately for Louisiana State, his players never stopped believing for a second.
After being stymied for the better part of seven innings, the Tigers had finally seized the momentum from Rice in the eighth. The Owls’ lead had dwindled from five runs to three, and LSU could have cut it to two and had runners on the corners if Micah Gibbs hadn’t been gunned down at the plate to end the inning. At that moment, even Rice catcher Adam Zornes later said he thought the Owls were in the clear. He wasn’t alone.
|GAME AT A
Point: Right fielder Derek Helenihi’s single up the middle with one out in the ninth got everything started for LSU. The Tigers thrive upon stringing hits together, but they needed someone to get that first hit. From that point on, karma had shifted and the Tigers got all the breaks they needed to engineer a breathless comeback.
masterful for 5 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and two
walks against an LSU offense that was batting .357 with 18 homers in
six NCAA tournament games heading into the CWS.
“In the eighth inning when the runner was thrown out at home plate, I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe we’ve run out of good fortune for the year, I don’t know,'” Mainieri said. “But I shouldn’t even have any second thoughts about these guys. They just keep doing it.”
Late-inning comebacks have become routine for LSU during its jaw-dropping late-season run, but none tops Tuesday’s frantic rally against rival Rice. Blake Dean’s walk-off, three-run double off the left-field wall in the bottom of the ninth capped a 6-5 comeback win that keeps LSU alive and eliminates Rice from the College World Series.
“What a monumental win,” Mainieri said. “We’ve had a lot of these like this. I know the stakes keep getting higher and higher, but we’ve had a lot of games that looked like they were lost, and our kids keep battling right to the very end. All of you were able to witness today what I’ve been able to witness several times throughout the course of the season.”
Coming from behind so many times before—most notably a rally from three runs down in the ninth inning of a super-regional elimination against UC Irvine—did more than just help the players believe.
“We’ve done this quite a few times this year, so I think there wasn’t a doubt in our mind that we could come back,” Dean said. “It’s gotten to the point now where believing’s not really the issue; we know we can do it.”
For the first six innings, there was little reason for anyone outside the LSU dugout to believe a comeback was in the cards. The Tigers couldn’t get anything going against Rice starter Chris Kelley, who allowed just four hits over 5 2/3 scoreless innings. When the Tigers did get runners on base, they repeatedly ran themselves out of innings, getting runners thrown out at the plate in the second and eighth, having a runner picked off in the third and another caught stealing in the fifth. Rice, meanwhile, put up four runs on LSU starter Jared Bradford, highlighted by Rick Hague’s second-inning two-run single.
“We were behind 4-0 and 5-0, and in reality it seemed like 15-0 because we didn’t get much offense going,” Mainieri said.
With two outs and two on in the sixth, Kelley gave way to senior lefthander Cole St.Clair, who has been Rice’s bullpen ace for the better part of four years. St.Clair got a big strikeout to end the threat, then worked his way into and out of trouble in the seventh and eighth—a stretch that included a strikeout of Dean in the eighth. But the Tigers posted single runs in each of those innings, and the next time through the order, St.Clair’s deception and high leg kick failed to fool them. They began to sit on his fastball, and with one out in the ninth, they pushed across a run with a pair of seeing-eye singles sandwiched around a hit batsman.
“For the latter part of the year, that’s how it’s been for us,” sophomore outfielder Jared Mitchell said. “You get a guy on, the next guy gets on, and that’s when the team just starts rolling.”
Rice had a chance to get out of it when Mitchell chopped a potential double-play ball to shortstop Rick Hague, but the ball took a funny hop off Hague’s chest and everyone was safe. The bases were loaded for Dean, who drove the second St.Clair fastball he saw off the left-field wall. Mitchell scored from first base, and some Tigers mobbed him at the plate while others engulfed Dean at second base.
“I know Blake was looking for a fastball out over the plate, and as smart as he is, I’ve seen him go to the opposite field with power before,” Mainieri said. “He put a beautiful swing on the ball and I thought it was going to leave the ballpark. When I saw it hit the wall, all I did was shift my eyes to Jared Mitchell, and all I could see was a blur going around the bases. I think if (third-base coach) Cliff (Godwin) had tried to hold him up, he’d have run through him like a defensive back for Alabama.”
There was no stopping Mitchell, who won a national championship as a wide receiver for LSU’s football team in the fall. His chances to pick up another ring in Omaha remained alive Tuesday in the most improbable fashion. But it was nothing Mainieri hadn’t seen before.
Exactly six years ago today, Mainieri’s Notre Dame team came from behind to beat Wayne Graham’s Owls on a walk-off homer by Brian Stavisky.
“Personally it was like deja vu,” Mainieri said. “I just can’t believe one person could be so blessed to experience something like this twice in a lifetime. It’s just amazing.”
For his part, Rice’s 72-year-old coach has seen teams with late-inning mojo like LSU’s before.
“I’ve seen a lot of that,” he said. “It’s not something new for me. That’s the way the game is. You just take the good with the bad. You love the game, and sometimes it loves you back.”