By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The Tigers moved within a game of Omaha in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion.
Trailing 3-0, LSU came alive for four runs in the eighth inning against the Mississippi State bullpen to stun the Bulldogs and take game one of the Baton Rouge Super Regional, 4-3, at Alex Box Stadium on Saturday night.
It’s only the fourth time in program history an LSU team has overcome a three-or-more run deficit from the eighth inning on to win an NCAA Tournament game.
“That’s a game we’ll never forget in these parts, I can promise you that,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We’ll be talking about this game 10 years from now.”
Kramer Robertson sparked the rally with a leadoff walk. He clapped in the direction of the LSU dugout on his way to first base. After a hard lineout to center, Antoine Duplantis singled over the shortstop’s outstretched glove to kick the volume into another gear.
“As soon as Kramer walked, the gates of hell were unleashed,” LSU starter Alex Lange said.
With two on and one out, Greg Deichmann breathed life into a deflated ballpark with a two-run double to left. Postseason sensation Zach Watson then promptly tied the game with a sharp single to left.
A perfect hit-and-run single from Beau Jordan then forced Mississippi State to walk the bases loaded. Catcher Mike Papierski, who cost LSU a chance to tie the game earlier with a misstep on the base paths, lifted a sacrifice fly to deep center field to bring home the winning run.
“I told him this was his moment,” Mainieri recounted of a chat with his veteran backstop as Josh Smith took his intentional walk. “Nobody was going to take this from him. It was his turn and he was going to drive in the winning run.”
Zack Hess, who came in to get the final out of the eighth inning, remained to begin the ninth. The freshman gave up a leadoff single but retired the next three to strand the tying run at third base and leave All-American Brent Rooker in the on-deck circle.
Even with veteran closer Hunter Newman ready to go, Mainieri stuck with the freshman and Hess blew 96 and 95 mph heaters by Hunter Stovall to end it.
“I was a little bit afraid of him, to be honest with you,” the coach said. “If I had tried to take him out of the game I’m not sure I’d still be here to talk to you at the press conference. He was a man possessed, wasn’t he? He was high-fiving everybody when the runs were coming in. I went over to him and asked him if he wanted to stay in, and he about chewed my head off when I asked him.”
The late rally salvaged what could’ve been one of the more frustrating defeats in recent postseason history. LSU squandered a gem from Lange and wasted three golden opportunities to score before coming alive against the Mississippi State relief corps.
The Tigers will now have two chances to win one game and punch its ticket to the College World Series. They’ll hand the ball to Jared Poche’ on Sunday night at 8 p.m. Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro said he hadn’t decided on who he’d start in game two.
Mississippi State took the early lead as Lange battled his command in the first inning.
Two walks and a bloop single loaded the bases, and he plunked Jake Mangum to force home a run. The right hander then fanned the next two hitters on wicked curveballs to leave the bases loaded and limit the damage.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Lange said. “Limiting the damage. After you give up the one, you can’t cash it in.”
The ace found his groove from there, matching zeroes with Bulldog ace Konnor Pilkington. It took Lange 29 pitches to get out of the first inning and only 49 to get through the next five. He retired 17 of the next 18 batters with nine strikeouts after the Mangum hit by pitch.
LSU didn’t pick up its first hit against Pilkington until Duplantis led off the fourth with a single back up the middle. Watson then fouled off a series of two-strike offerings before lining a single to center, setting up a second-and-third situation with one out thanks to aggressive base running.
The Tigers failed to score in the inning, with Smith flying out to the warning track to end the threat, though they made Pilkington throw 31 pitches. Smith’s drive brought the capacity crowd to its feet, but Hunter Vansau hauled it in with his back up against the wall in right field.
Papierski led off the fifth with a double into the left field corner and Jake Slaughter bunted him over to third. However, he froze in no man’s land on a swinging bunt off the bat of Robertson and was tagged out to short-circuit the scoring opportunity.
A leadoff single from Jordan and walk to Smith chased Pilkington from the game in the seventh inning with 102 pitches. Papierski laid down a perfect sac bunt against reliever Peyton Plumlee to again put the tying run on third base with less than two outs.
That brought up Slaughter for the most crucial at-bat of his young career. He lifted a fly ball to shallow center field, and Mangum hosed Jordan on a bang-bang play at the plate to end the inning. The call was confirmed by video review.
Dormant since the first inning, Mississippi State put together a rally against Lange in the eighth. Hunter Stovall doubled to right-center field and LSU intentionally walked Rooker. Lange struck out Ryan Gridley, but Cody Brown smashed a two-out, two-run double to left.
That was it for Lange, who tipped his cap to the crowd as he walked off the mound at the Box one final time. He scatted three hits and six walks (two intentional) over 7.2 innings and struck out 10.