CORVALLIS, Ore. — The end of LSU’s season seemed inevitable from the moment Steven Kwan’s leadoff home run landed halfway up the right field bleachers on Sunday afternoon, but the chain of events that led to such an ignominious end began in Omaha last summer.
The unraveling of the pitching staff started when Eric Walker gingerly walked off the mound at TD Ameritrade Park headed for Tommy John Surgery. It continued when two top recruits signed professionally and a third missed practically the entire season after shoulder surgery.
That’s not to mention losing star shortstop Josh Smith to a back injury three games into the campaign. Half the LSU rotation being out for the Corvallis Regional due to arm fatigue was just the cherry on top.
LSU probably couldn’t have beaten Oregon State on its home turf even at full strength, but a pitching staff running on fumes stood no chance against the methodical, grind-to-out Beaver attack as LSU’s season ended with a 12-0 shellacking at Goss Stadium in the Corvallis Regional Finals.
“They obviously have a much better team than we do this year, and they beat us fair and square,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I wish we could have been a little bit more competitive in the games, but they deserved it, and they’ll advance while our season ends.”
The 2018 Tigers will be remembered as a maddeningly inconsistent group, but also a team that never stopped fighting through an injury-plagued season with a roster lacking the star power of most of the teams Mainieri has fielded in his 12-year tenure. The unlikely performances of Austin Bain, Ma’Khail Hilliard, Hal Hughes and others that kept the season afloat will resonate fondly long after the pain of Sunday fades away.
There were hope-inspiring moments — most of them came at Alex Box Stadium, of course, as road woes are a big reason the Tigers got banished to the Pacific Northwest in the first place — and low points, but LSU’s season ended about where the talent level of the team would dictate.
Still, it was difficult to watch as Oregon State exacted a pound of flesh in the form of a 26-1 cumulative evisceration to send LSU packing from the NCAA Tournament.
“This was a transition year for us,” Mainieri said. “We lost an awful lot of great players from our team last year and we suffered so many debilitating injuries that it could have been really disastrous. Even though it’s not the standard that we’re use to at LSU, to win 39 ball games and make a great run in the SEC Tournament and make it to the championship game of a regional, we just got beat by a superior team out here.”
The coach continued: “Our kids gave it everything they had. I’m so proud of them. They left it all out there on the field. We just came up a little bit short.”
It took Devin Fontenot 46 pitches to get through the first inning alone. Oregon State saw 74 pitches — only 40 of which were strikes — from Fontenot and John Kodros while amassing a 5-0 lead through two innings. Three of those runs came home on either a free pass or error.
Meanwhile a lineup that had orchestrated a miraculous season-saving rally earlier in the day was utterly dominated by Oregon State freshman Kevin Abel. He limited LSU to two three and a walk over eight-plus innings with eight strikeouts.
“For me, he was mixing his pitches really well,” Bain said. “He had a plus changeup and a plus breaking ball that you had to respect. That got you off the fastball, and he worked the fastball in and the curveball away. So he was just mixing his pitches and locating really well.”
Bain, the MVP of LSU’s season, took over on the mound in the third inning and did what he could to at least delay the avalanche. Cadyn Grenier launched a moonshot of a solo home run in the third and the Beavers finally broke the game open with four runs in the sixth. Mainieri lauded him for competing hard to the bitter end.
“I wish I had longer, but I gave it everything I had for four years, so I’m happy and have no regrets,” said Bain, who thanked the small LSU contingent of fans who gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the mound for the final time as a Tiger.
Oregon State proceeded to continue beating on the underside of the LSU bullpen for no other reason than they could and the wounds of losing to LSU in the College World Series appear to have not completely healed. The Beavers certainly look like a juggernaut steamrolling toward a return trip to Omaha.
Obviously there will be no such return to college baseball’s promised land for LSU this summer. Instead a crucial offseason begins in earnest with the MLB Draft on Monday night as Mainieri and Co. look to get back to winning ways after what qualifies as a rare down season by the loft standards they’ve established.
“Obviously there’s a lot of areas we need to upgrade in,” Mainieri said. “I don’t have my head in the sand, believe me. This was an up-and-down year and we need to make a lot of improvements in a lot of areas, and we will.”