That day could have gone better. A disastrous day for off-the-field news for LSU football was then capped off by the baseball team getting thrashed in Omaha. It was a series of gut punches throughout the day, and by the end of it, LSU fans were reaching for the bottle even more than we usually do.
In the end, the baseball team is precisely what they thought they were. Before the CWS started, we outlined the four biggest obstacles to LSU's chances of winning the title. To save you the trouble of going back and reading that link, the four obstacles were, in order, 1) The Third Starter, 2) The Bullpen, 3) The Ballpark, and 4) The Coach.
As it turned out, all four factors came into play. Nailed it! So while this was one of the more depressing ends to an LSU baseball season, primarily due to the team's lofty ranking all season and its real potential of taking home the hardware, it also wasn't too much of a surprise. This was a fundamentally flawed team and looking back on the season, it's a miracle that they managed to post such a gaudy record.
That is a credit to the team. This was a great LSU team even if they fell short of the ultimate prize. Still, they were a blast for most of the year, and they ran roughshod over the toughest conference in America. That still means something. The fact they did it without a third starter and a shaky bullpen makes it all the more remarkable.
However, once you get to Omaha, you cannot hide your flaws as easily. Tournament play has a way of exposing the holes in your roster. And to quote from that preview I warned you not to go back and read:
Some teams seem built for the loser's bracket and its high demands on your staff (see TCU's near endless supply of pitching depth). LSU is not one of those teams. LSU's roster advantage is lost the moment it loses a game and gets sent to the loser's bracket.
LSU could not afford to lose one of its first two games. The moment Poche' got knocked out of Sunday's start, this was all just delaying the inevitable. LSU did not have the pitching depth to come out of the loser's bracket.
Now, Mainieri certainly didn't help things with his bullpen usage. It's not that LSU lacks talent in the pen, it's just that it lacks consistency. His only hope of navigating the loser's bracket was to find a hot hand in the bullpen, and ride that arm to victory, or at least as far as that guy will take you.
Joe Torre is one of the all-time great postseason managers not just because he was blessed with a copious amount of talent (though he was), but because he managed each game as if it was the last game of the season. He didn't worry about tomorrow today. He threw everything he had into winning one game, because a win is more valuable than a tomorrow that may never come. Mainieri managed with an eye towards the next day, and because of that, he lost the battle he was currently fighting.
Twice, Mainieri stumbled upon a hot hand in the bullpen. Hunter Newman came in with the bases loaded and gave up a big single, but then he struck out the next two batters to prevent further damage. The following inning, he got three outs in four batters. He wasn't quite in cruise control, but he was keeping us in a 3-3 game. Mainieri pulled him for Austin Bain, who would uncork a wild pitch, two walks, and a balk before giving up a 2 RBI double that ended up being the margin of victory.
Still, the game wasn't entirely out of reach. Doug Norman came into the game in the 6th inning with LSU down 6-3. He struck out two and got the other out on a comebacker to the pitcher. Mainieri responded to the clean slate by lifting him for Jesse Stallings, who promptly gave up two runs, effectively ending any chances of a comeback.
Twice, the baseball gods smiled upon LSU and one of the relievers appeared to have the goods that night. And both times, Mainieri spit in the baseball gods face, lifted the pitcher, and suffered the consequences. The whole point of Johnny Wholestaff is maybe to stumble into the guy who has the hot hand that night. Maineiri ignored that, and each time, it led to a big inning.
Meanwhile, Jim Schlossnagle found his hot hand and responded by sitting back and eating another apple. Mitchell Traver struggled in the 1st inning, but got out of trouble, allowing only one run. He gave up two more in the 3rd, so when he walked a batter in the 4th, Schlossnagle did not hesitate: he went to the bullpen and brought in Trey Teakell.
Teakell responded by getting the next 13 batters out, on only one strikeout. Really, he didn't do anything amazing on the mound. He just did what LSU pitchers couldn't. He threw strikes and let his defense make outs. He was cool, efficient, and utterly effective. And Schlossnagle didn't look a gift horse in the mouth and despite the lack of overwhelming stuff, he left the guy dominating the LSU lineup in the game.
He rode the hot hand and the baseball gods smiled. And LSU's trip to Omaha ends in tears again.