You hate to use the word "choke". It's an overused word in today's sports lexicon, as if every loss is some demonstration of an actual moral failing. The other team is trying, too, and in the case of a regional final, that other team is usually pretty darn good in their own right. You don't deserve to win until you actually do it.
That said, LSU was up 4-0 in the eighth inning, a mere six outs away from closing out this regional with relative ease. A bizarre seventh inning inside the park home run gave LSU a seeming insurmountable lead, particularly with reliever Joe Broussard in the pen.
Then it all came apart.
It's easy to second guess, but hey, that's what pays the blogging bills. Mainieri had a quick hook for his starter, Kyle Bouman, who had only thrown 64 pitches through six inning. I'm not a big fan of taking out a pitcher who is cruising, but Mainieri has routinely lifted Bouman early in games. So, Bouman got the hook despite the fact he was working on a two-hitter and no Houston batter had reached third base yet.
I'm not inherently against a quick hook, but Bouman hadn't encountered the least bit of trouble yet. However, in came McCune, and for the rest for the game, Mainieri would have an extremely slow hook. McCune walked the first batter he faced, but otherwise made quick work of the seventh inning. Then came the amazing bottom of the inning, which due to the umpiring controversy, took over half an hour to play. Through it all, there was McCune sitting on the bench, his arm getting cold.
This, I admit, is the height of second guessing. LSU had a four-run lead, and it's always better to score runs than to not score them. However, given the long delay, Mainieri's antennae at least should have been attuned to the possibility McCune had gotten cold while sitting on the bench through it all. If ever there was a time for a short hook, this was it.
So I won't criticize Mainieri for sending McCune to start the eighth inning, but I sure as heck will criticize him for not having Fury ready to go at the first sign of trouble. The first batter reached by single. OK, no big deal. Then, a runner reached on an infield dribbler due to McCune's obstruction. I get it wasn't a hard hit ball, but now there are two runners on and no one out with the top of the order coming up to the plate. McCune has to come out there. Instead, he pitches to the next batter, who also singles. Bases loaded, no one out, McCune is clearly struggling, yet there is no movement from the dugout. At this point, it's abundantly clear McCune just doesn't have it, but Mainieri lets him to pitch to yet another batter. Appling singles, two runs score, and we have a ball game.
Only then does Mainieri go to the bullpen. Person gets a ground-out and immediately gets lifted for Fury. Fury allows the game-tying single, then rallies to get the next two outs. This is why we invented the expression "too little, too late".
Fury and Person combined to get three of four hitters out, allowing only one single. But because Mainieri waited far too long to take McCune out of the game, that one single tied the game up. A coach has to recognize when his pitcher just doesn't have it, and he waited until the inning was in full on meltdown before going to the pen. There was no earthly way McCune was working his way out of that mess, but Mainieri just stranded him out there. All the more odd, given his quick hook for Bouman.
It's a little bit harder to criticize the slow hook in the 11th inning. Joe Broussard is the team's relief ace, and even though he had already pitched two innings, he was cruising in the 11th. He got the first two outs, and it looked to be an easy inning. Then a single. Then a double. Then what turned out to be the game-winning single. It was the first time the Cougars even vaguely threatened Broussard, and sometimes you just trust your ace reliever to get the out. Broussard, however, was gassed and just couldn't get the one out to get out of the inning.
LSU dominated this regional for 25 innings. The team looked like it was cruising towards an easy win and the Super Regionals. Then it seemed that the team just got complacent, and expected Houston to throw in the white towel. They are too good to just give up. And while they began to furiously rally, Mainieri just sat there and watched, refusing to make a move.
Patience sometimes pays off. Last night, it failed. What might have seemed like confidence instead was hubris. You have to kill the rally in its infancy. LSU's failure to do so allowed Houston to get back in a game that seemed already lost.
Once Houston rallied, LSU's offense went into the tank. The Tiger bats responded to the rally by getting one hit over the next four innings, and that was a single with two outs. The team thought it had won before it was time. Games are at least nine innings, let's go play another nine and get it right this time.