By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Alex Lange pointed skyward and pounded his mitt in jubilation as he walked off the mound from what may be his final collegiate start for LSU.
But Friday won’t be the last game of his career, nor of LSU’s College World Series run.
The LSU ace made damn sure of it.
Lange cut big, bad Oregon State down to size at TD Ameritrade Park on Friday afternoon, stifling the Beavers to one run on two hits in 7.1 brilliant innings of work.
LSU prevailed 3-1 to save its season again, snap Oregon State’s 23-game winning streak and set up a winner-take-all showdown to be played some time Saturday.
“Alex thrives in this environment,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s really been something. What a performance today. Exactly what we needed.”
The difference between Friday’s thrilling victory and Monday’s humbling defeat is pretty simple: Lange. Like Jared Poche’ on Wednesday night, the veteran went out and took his team into the latter stages of the game before turning over a lead to phenom closer Zack Hess to had the Beavers their fifth loss all season.
Together, Lange and Hess combined to strike out 12 and throw the third two-hitter in LSU’s NCAA Tournament history. The last one belonged to Aaron Nola in the 2013 Baton Rouge Super Regional.
The freshmen did the heavy lifting offensive behind them. Josh Smith singled home a run early and mashed a solo home run to provide insurance late. Zach Watson continued his red-hot run in Omaha with three hits and drew a walk.
It started with an early lead and an eerie sense of déjà vu. Greg Deichmann legged out a hustle double to right field to begin the second inning and Watson chased him to third with a single to left.
Smith then put the Tigers on the board with a two-strike single up the middle and Beau Jordan squeezed home a second run, the same exact sequence that put LSU ahead of Florida State in the second inning Wednesday.
“I didn’t think two runs were going to win the game,” Mainieri said. “Ultimately they did.”
Razor-sharp out of the starting gate, Lange lost his command a bit in the third inning. Oregon State may have tied the game if Steven Kwan’s would-be double off the wall wasn’t erroneously ruled foul.
Oregon State coach Pat Casey admitted on the ESPN broadcast that he should’ve requested a review. The NCAA put out a statement during the game: “(I)t was a reviewable play. The crew chief should have called for a review. It was not handled properly by protocol.”
The Beavers only got one run back, a bases-loaded walk to Trevor Larnach, but forced Lange to throw 33 pitches to get himself out of trouble. From there it became a race for Oregon State to wait the LSU ace out of the game as early as possible.
LSU has Oregon State starter Jake Thompson on the ropes early, but he wiggled out of a two-on, nobody-out jam in the fourth and settled into something of a groove.
That lasted until Smith ambushed the first pitch of the seventh inning and crushed a solo home run that carried the LSU bullpen in right field in its entirety. Two of his five home runs this season have come in the NCAA Tournament.
“Just sitting first-pitch fastball like Micah (Gibbs) told me to,” Smith said.
Lange, who was at 89 pitches through five innings, seemed to catch a second wind. Realizing Oregon State wasn’t swinging at any breaking balls, Lange and catcher Mike Papierski opted to be more aggressive with the fastball and force Oregon State to put the ball in play.
As a result he retired the final eight men he faced with relative ease. Mainieri wanted to pull him after the seventh inning, but asked Lange if he could go back out and get Kwan, who was scheduled to lead off.
“That was my mentality, just take the team as deep into the game as I can,” Lange said. “And when its time, hand it over to the monster.”
The Monster he’s referring to of course is LSU’s rock star of a freshman closer who continued to amplify the almost mythical status that’s surrounded his College World Series.
Hess blew a 95 mph fastball past Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Madrigal and fanned Larnach on a wicked curveball after setting him up with the heat.
Hess returned in the ninth and blew three consecutive 95+ mph heaters past KJ Hassison. He then induced a fly out to left, the first ball put in play against Hess in 10 batters faced in Omaha, and caught Tyler Malone looking at 3-2 heat to nail down his third save in the College World Series.
Of the 23 pitches the freshman threw, 20 were fastballs.
“When you’re throwing it 96-97 mph, usually the fastball is good enough,” Mainieri laughed.
He’ll be available and ready to roll Saturday if LSU gets a lead for him to protect.