By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — The Tigers once again find themselves in the position they seem to feel most comfortable in: backs pressed firmly against the wall.
LSU ran into a filthy buzz saw by the name of Brady Singer in the opening game of the College World Series Finals. Singer struck out a CWS Finals-record 12 across seven innings of three-run ball to lead Florida past LSU 4-3 at TD Ameritrade Park on Monday night.
“My feelings are that we went up against who I believe to be maybe the best pitcher I’ve seen in the SEC for an opponent since I’ve been the coach at LSU,” Paul Mainieri said. “He reminds me so much of Aaron Nola it’s scary.”
Now needing consecutive wins to capture its seventh national championship, LSU will turn to Jared Poche’ and, if it gets to Wednesday, Alex Lange in do-or-die games. LSU can lean on the experience of stringing together three consecutive wins, including two in as many days against Oregon State, to reach the championship round in the first play.
Florida, having picked up its first ever win in the CWS Finals, needs one more to take home its first title. Teams that win game one are 10-3 under the current format, which began in 2003. Game Two is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday.
From a pitching standpoint, the game went about as well as LSU could’ve hoped considering it had to implement a Johnny Wholestaff approach led by a pitcher who hadn’t started a game all season.
In the end, one wild inning proved too much to come back from in a nail biter of a game one.
“That’s the great thing about baseball, you get to come out and play tomorrow,” right fielder Greg Deichmann said. “We’re not hanging our heads about anything. We had a lot of great stuff we did tonight. We had a couple of tough breaks that didn’t go our way.”
Surprise starter Russell Reynolds gave LSU just about all it could’ve asked for considering the stage. He faced the minimum through three innings and recorded 10 outs, his longest outing of the season, on the largest stage in the sport.
However, he appeared to run out of gas as he lost his command in the fourth. Mainieri was forced to hook him after the fifth-year senior issued three consecutive walks to load the bases.
“If you would have told me before the game we would get three shutout innings from him to start the game, I would have been pleased,” Mainieri said. “I got a little greedy there and tried to get an extra inning out of him … I knew in my heart if we got three good ones out of him, I should have been pleased. I’ll take the blame for that. I tried to stick with him for too long and it backfired.”
That’d turn out to be the difference in the game.
Lefty Nick Bush came on and allowed all three inherited runners to score. Austin Langworthy lifted a popup sac fly down the left-field line and Jonathan India smashed a two-run, ground-rule double to straightaway center field.
LSU looked poised to respond as Antoine Duplantis and Deichmann led off the home half with back-to-back sharp singles. Instead Singer gathered himself and struck out the side to pour ice water on the threat.
Stifled through five, LSU broke through against Singer in the sixth. Duplantis seemed to unnerve the nasty right-hander a bit with a solo shot, only his second of the year. After two free passes, Beau Jordan came through with a two-out knock to cut the deficit to one.
Bush, who’d been effective since entering in the fourth, couldn’t keep it there. Langworthy led off the seventh with a double, and after a sacrifice bunt, Mike Rivera smoked an RBI single through the drawn-in infield to bring home an insurance run.
Deichmann finally chased Singer from the game with a leadoff double in the eighth. Closer Michael Byrne came entered for the Gators, and Josh Smith smoked an RBI single to right-center field.
Smith got thrown out going for second base on a controversial call. Replay showed Smith may have swim moved around the tag, but the play is by rule not reviewable.
“I haven’t seen the video of it,” Mainieri said. “I think a lot of people thought he was safe. But I couldn’t tell from where I was.”
That call short-circuited the rally instead of giving LSU two cracks with the tying run in scoring position. Byrne then worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning to nail down his Division I-leading 19th save of the season, pushing LSU right back to the brink of elimination.
“We’re not going to hang our heads tonight,” Mainieri said. “I thought our kids competed as hard as they could and they left it all out there on the field. And we were just a hair short.”