The house always wins.
It may have taken awhile, seven innings to be exact, but eventually Alex Box Stadium awoke from its slumber as the LSU Tigers (47-17) stormed back late to take game one of the Baton Rouge Super Regional 4-3 from their arch rivals the Mississippi State Bulldogs (40-26).
LSU scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth to rally from a three run deficit and breathe life into a crowd that up until that point had been devoid of it.
“That’s a game we’ll never forget in these parts,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said. “I can promise you that, I’ll be talking about this game 10 years from now.”
Mississippi State opened the scoring right away in the first inning, taking advantage of Alex Lange struggling to find the zone with two walks, a hit by pitch, and a single. Still though, State loaded the bases with one out and Lange only allowed the lone run to score on a Jake Mangum hit by pitch before striking out the next two batters. All things considered, LSU was lucky to escape the inning only down a run.
“It's what it's all about,” Alex Lange said. “It's limiting the damage. You give up one, you don't give up two. It's been our philosophy since I've been on campus.”
LSU nearly pulled ahead in the bottom of the fourth with a leadoff single from Antoine Duplantis and another single from Zach Watson, who advanced to second on the throw to first. Beau Jordan popped out to second with one out. Josh Smith then smashed a ball to right, but not far enough as it was caught at the warning track.
In the fifth inning Michael Papierski lead off with a double. He was bunted to third, and then disaster struck. Robertson hit a tapper down the third base line and instead of booking it, Papierski froze and watched the ball, hoping it would roll foul instead of moving to home. He was dead meat and in back to back innings LSU had a runner at third with one out and failed to score it.
“It was frustrating because I knew we were facing a tough pitcher,” Mainieri said. “We knew we weren’t going to have a lot of opportunities, and we let some of those opportunities go by.”
“When the ball's hit right at you like that, I think he just kind of froze and got himself too far off the base to be able to return. Pat very rarely bakes a base running mistake. But I could see why it happened. It was a very awkward looking play.”
“We were just stepping on our feet the whole game,” Kramer Robertson said. “But we kept at it and kept at it. We kept saying the whole game that we felt like if we can get the first run on the board the floodgates would open and we would get confidence and momentum.”
The good news for LSU is that the Tigers had chased Konnor Pilkington out of the game after six innings of work where he threw 102 pitches. The bad news is that in that time he had only allowed four hits and no runs while walking four and striking out the same amount. But LSU had achieved their goal and pushed the Bulldogs ace out of the game, whether or not they could capitalize on that goal had become the question.
“Konnor Pilkington did an outstanding job for us,” Mississippi State head coach Andy Cannizaro said. “Pounding the zone with his fastball, threw his curveball for strikes. He kept an outstanding offensive team, shut them out for six innings tonight.”
Those mistakes would loom large in the eighth inning as State added two more runs. Hunter Stovall led off the inning with a double and Brent Rooker was (wisely) walked intentionally after him. Lange struck out Ryan Gridley for his 10th of the night before allowing another double to Cody Brown that landed just past the outstretched arms of Antoine Duplantis short of the left field warning track. State went ahead 3-0 and the general atmosphere around the stadium felt like there was slim chance of LSU making a game out of it.
The LSU crowd got to their feet for the first time tonight when Alex Lange was pulled and left the field at LSU for the last time in his career. He had given 7.2 innings of work where he gave up three runs, all earned, on three hits while walking six and striking out 10. Zack Hess then got LSU out of the inning.
A spark can come from the strangest of places. Kramer Robertson lead off the bottom half of the eighth with a walk. He took two steps towards first base before turning to the LSU dugout and firing up the crowd. They were cautiously optimistic at first, and then truly started to believe with Antoine Duplantis’ liner past the shortstop to put two runners on with one out.
Greg Deichmann was due up, and Greg Deichmann did what he did all year for LSU: deliver. LSU’s power hitting senior left-hander pulled back on the swing and deposited a ball to the opposite field, plating Robertson and Duplantis, pulling LSU within one run.
Mississippi State then pulled Payton Plumlee for Riley Self, giving the crowd a reason to double down on the atmosphere with the most inspired and rousing rendition of Calling Baton Rouge to ever grace Alex Box Stadium.
Zach Watson broke the game open with a hit similar to Deichmann’s to left, tying up the ball game. Beau Jordan singled to move Watson to third, and then Josh Smith was walked intentionally to load the bases for Michael Papierski. Pap then crushed a ball, though it was not enough to get out of the deepest part of the ballpark. But it was deep enough to allow Zach Watson to tag up at third and advance home on the throw, giving LSU the 4-3 lead.
“As soon as Kramer walked, it was kind of the gates of hell were unleashed,” Lange said. “The offense clicked and they were ready to go. They've been batting tough ABs all night. They hit some balls hard. It was just time something started to fall. Once you get a couple guys going and this offense gets confidence, it's over. This offense is too good to be contained for nine innings and not score. We knew we were going to have a chance to win the ballgame there.”
“We’ve been there and we’ve done that,” Robertson said of LSU’s impeccable rally. “We’re a veteran team and we’ve seen it all. We know we can explode at any time as long as we have one out on the board. We don’t feel like any deficit is too big.”
The key to the comeback was as simple as remaining calm, according to Greg Deichmann.
“The biggest thing is just trying to get everybody to take a step back, myself included, knowing that I was going to come up in a big spot,” Deichmann said. “I was fortunate enough to get it done. But it all comes from everybody relaxing, knowing that we've been in this situation before and we're going to pull through.”
And when they did pull through, the crowd was finally unleashed and reached full throat, fulfilling the atmosphere we were promised in the buildup to this weekend.
“It’s awesome,” Papierski said of the crowd that simultaneously willed LSU to life as they did to it. “I’ve always said that these were the best fans in college baseball. It’s unbelievable. When they start cheering and chanting it’s like another person. It just gets you so fired up and you feed off the energy that they give.”
“Well, I mean I went up to the plate and all the fans were still hollering,” Zach Watson said about his first time seeing the Box light up like that. “It was an amazing experience. It's something that you only dream of doing.”
And then suddenly LSU’s freshman bullpen arm Zack Hess was in to close the game out for the Tigers instead of trying to keep it close. He gave up a bloop opposite field single off the bat of Elijah MacNamee, but State bunted him over, allowing Hess to record the save with a groundout and an overpowering strikeout of Stovall to end the game, leaving Brent Rooker on deck.
Cannizaro has yet to announce State’s starter for Sunday night’s game two, but he has narrowed it down between Jacob Billingsley and Denver McQuary. McQuary has a 4.67 ERA in 54 innings pitched, allowing 28 runs, all earned, with a 1.18 K/BB (47/40). Jacob Billingsley has a 4.44 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched 1.41 K/BB (52/37), allowing 27 earned runs with 26 of them earned. LSU will throw Jared Poche’.
As of now there is no determined television slated for Sunday’s game two, but the game will start at 8:00 p.m. central time and will either be on ESPN2 or ESPNU. If you’re attending the game, LSU urges you to wear purple to match the team.