I will be totally honest: I did not believe.
The LSU Tigers baseball team seemed for all intents and purposes, for 27 innings, like a team that was merely playing out the string. It was a depressing end to a depressing year, and a sad way to send a legend off into retirement.
Going into the SEC tournament, the general consensus was that LSU needed to win a game to feel safe. Go out there, beat Georgia and what could be a play-in game in more ways than one, and keep the season alive.
Instead, the Tigers laid an egg. A listless Tiger team gave up four runs in the first inning, and then wouldn’t get a runner to third base again until the eighth inning. With bases loaded, one out, and maybe the season on the line, Zach Arnold and Drew Bianco had consecutive strikeouts to end the threat.
Still, the committee saved LSU and granted the team an at large bid, even if they did send them as far away from home as possible. Mainieri claimed he was playing a hunch with his starting lineup and… well, let’s just say the hunch didn’t pay off.
LSU managed a mere four hits in a 3-0 loss to Gonzaga, the first time LSU has lost on the first day of a regional in about 30 years. You know while we were setting bad precedents this season. Both of Mainieri’s hunches, Sanford at DH and Safford at second, failed, as they went a combined 0 for 4 before both were lifted from the game in the later innings. But not before Safford committed a brutal error in the field.
LSU gave up 5 runs in the second inning to CCSU, before settling into a 5-5 tie at the end of the third. Neither team could manage a run or six innings and again, LSU rarely threatened. It was a textbook example of a team getting a gift of a bid, and then playing like a tam that didn’t belong.
But a strange thing happened on the road to oblivion.
LSU loaded the bases in the bottom of the 10th with just one out. The same situation in which the offense failed to come through against Georgia. Only this time, Giovanni DiGiacomo hit a dribbler past the second baseman which scored Dugas from third.
The Tigers sprinted out of the dugout and literally tore the clothes off of DiGiacomo in celebration. And a dismal and uninspiring postseason suddenly had new life.
Sometimes, all it takes is that little spark. LSU immediately squandered all of that momentum in the first inning of their elimination game against Gonzaga. AJ Labas loaded the bases with no outs, and seemed lucky to escape by allowing only two runs.
The LSU team which showed up in Eugene on Friday would have thrown in the towel. This team has routinely responded to adversity by letting adversity win. This has been a season of the other show constantly dropping.
But the LSU team on Sunday was not the same team it was on Friday, or even all year. A mark of Skip’s teams was that they played their best baseball at the end of the year. The regular season was simply the time you sharpened the team into what you wanted it to be in postseason. No one cares about that lead you blew in March.
LSU responded in the bottom of the first with four runs. They tacked on two more in the second, and another two in the third. Labas was still scuffling, but LSU was up 8-3 and the rout was on.
AJ Labas was not great on Sunday, but he was exactly what LSU needed: gutty as hell. Sometimes, guts are enough. Labas powered through eight innings, sparing the bullpen, by tossing 123 pitches and allowing four runs.
Not to be outdone, freshman Javen Coleman stepped up in relief in the nightcap, throwing 95 pitches over 6 innings, allowing only three hits and one run against a potent Oregon offense. He hadn’t thrown more than four innings in a game all year. His 5.46 ERA, inflated by a terrible outing against Ole Miss, still didn’t in any way point to this kind of performance.
To advance in the postseason, especially from the loser’s bracket, requires unlikely heroes. Javen Coleman added his name to the list. He didn’t pitch an inning against an SEC opponent until April 24, in which he gave up six runs to Ole Miss. A month later, he is the star of the Eugene regional.
The Tigers aren’t out of the woods yet. The hole they dug was deep, and they still need to win one more to advance to the Supers. But for one day, at least, the LSU of old was back, and you could feel the power of that magic.
Let’s hope Mainieri’s wand has enough left for one more spell.