By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Johnny Wholestaff pitched much better in the College World Series Finals than he did in most of LSU’s midweek games.
Three bullpen arms kept LSU in the game throughout, though the Tigers ultimately fell 4-3 to Florida in game one at TD Ameritrade Park on Monday night.
Surprise starter Russell Reynolds faced the minimum over three innings before losing his command in the fourth. Though he wound up saddled with the loss, the fifth-year senior set a new season-high for innings (3.1), more than anyone would’ve reasonably expected in his first start of the season.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri put the blame on himself for the three consecutive walks Reynolds issued to load the bases — all of which came around to score — saying he got “a little greedy” in trying to squeeze an extra inning out of Reynolds.
“He was doing a good job, but I think I should have been happy with three and probably would have been the prudent move to go to a fresh arm,” Mainieri said. “Let Nick Bush start the inning fresh instead of bringing him in a tough situation.”
Instead Bush inherited a bases-loaded jam with one out. He induced a popup to shallow left that brought a run home, and an errant throw moved both runners into scoring position. Jonathan India then struck the game’s big blow, a two-run, ground-rule double to straightaway center field.
Bush settled in and provided length from there, putting up zeroes in the fifth and sixth innings. The lefty gave up a run in the seventh before giving way to Hunter Newman, who shook off his disastrous previous outing to work 2.1 shutout innings.
Altogether, the trio held Florida to four runs on six hits and ultimately did enough to give LSU a chance to steal the game late.
“I think they did a great job,” Antoine Duplantis said. “They kept us in the game the whole time and we had a chance to win.”
Perhaps as important in the long run, it allowed LSU to give closer Zack Hess another day of rest should there be a lead to nail down on Tuesday. He’s now had two days off since feeling “fatigued” after three relief stints in four days.
Everybody is getting in on the home run act at TD Ameritrade Park this week.
Duplantis, who’d hit all of one home run all season, turned on a 3-1 fastball from Brady Singer in the sixth inning and sent a solo home run into the right field bullpen that broke up a Florida shutout.
The homer seemed to unnerve Singer, who’d dominated up to that point, just a bit. The Gator right hander issued back-to-back free passes and surrendered a two-out RBI single to Beau Jordan that briefly brought LSU within a run.
Duplantis had far and away the best night at the plate of any Tiger, finishing 2-for-4 against Florida’s nasty sophomore. He was the only starter in the LSU lineup who didn’t strike out at least once.
“I was seeing him pretty well today,” Duplantis said. “I was just trying to lay off the breaking ball as much as I could, and I did a good job of that, and luckily I got ahead in the count that at-bat and I didn’t miss my pitch.”
LSU will turn to Jared Poche’ (12-3, 3.33 ERA) to save its season and give Alex Lange another chance to toe in rubber in an LSU uniform.
In other words, business as usual.
This is the exact situation Mainieri wanted to be prepared for when he opted to Johnny Wholestaff game one. If LSU lost — a definite possibility considering the pitching matchup — he wanted to have his two horses on full rest ready to go back to back.
“We don’t think the series is over by a long stretch,” the coach said. “We’re excited about playing tomorrow and hopefully we can have a little bit more luck on our side tomorrow.”
Though he didn’t know the win-or-go-home stakes at the time, Poche’ spoke of taking the ball for LSU one final time on this grand stage at a press conference Sunday morning. One way or the other, he’ll head to professional baseball as the winningest pitcher in program history.
“As far as ending my career, I mean, you can’t go out any better way,” Poche’ said. “It’s gotta end eventually towards the end in Omaha in the College World Series. You know, it’s what every college pitcher would hope for. It’s what every baseball player would hope for.”
Florida, having used its big gun in Singer, will turn to freshman right-hander Tyler Dyson (3-0, 3.55 ERA), Gator coach Kevin O’Sullivan said after the game.
“He threw really good last weekend against Wake Forest, another good hitting team, and he’s got a really good arm,” O’Sullivan said. “So we’re going to ride it. He’s been really good for the last three weeks and we’re going to run him out there and see what he can do for us.”