By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Kramer Robertson is finally going to be able to change the background image on his phone.
It took until the wee hours of the morning, but the Tigers are going to Omaha.
LSU completed a redemptive tale one year in the making early Monday morning, outlasting Mississippi State, 14-4, to sweep the Baton Rouge Super Regional and punch a ticket to the College World Series for the 18th time in program history and fifth under Paul Mainieri.
Considering how long Robertson, Cole Freeman, Greg Deichmann and the rest of LSU’s veterans waited to rid themselves of the ghosts of Coastal Carolina, three rain delays and a soggy field did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the celebratory dog pile after the final out.
Nobody seemed to mind the wait. All involved savored the victory lap that followed.
“It’s not like I hadn’t waited long enough for this moment. We had to have a rain delay,” Robertson smiled, still soaking in the moment. “I waited my entire baseball career and life for that dogpile. So I could wait a little bit longer.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered if we were out here until five in the morning,” Deichmann added. “We knew in the bottom of our hearts we were going to Omaha.”
The Tigers will ride a 16-game winning streak into the College World Series, an unbeaten stretch that spans the entire postseason dates back to May 9. LSU will open pursuit of its seventh national championship next weekend against Florida State.
As for this campaign, LSU is now five championships down with only the big one left to chase. A vindication for a team that didn’t hang its head when the bandwagon emptied out as the team started the season a middling 27-15.
Like most triumphant achievements, there was adversity along the way. LSU persevered through a four-run Mississippi State hay-maker in the third inning amid an abject nightmare of an outing from one of the most reliable pitchers in program history.
But trailing 4-3, LSU scored six times in the fifth inning against a Bulldog pitching staff that couldn’t find the plate to retake control of a whacky, disjointed baseball marathon for good.
Mike Papierski struck the big blow, a two-run double to put LSU ahead, after Mississippi State walked the bases loaded with one out. He drove in the game-winning run in both of the victories over the Bulldogs.
Jake Slaughter singled home a run and Robertson doubled home another. The other two runs came home on a wild pitch and a two-out throwing error by Mississippi State’s usually-reliable second baseman, Hunter Stovall.
A brilliant relief effort for the ages from Caleb Gilbert made damn sure they held it. He inherited a chaotic mess and fired 5.2 shutout innings of two-hit ball, striking out six to earn the clinching victory. He retired 15 in a row at one point and 17 of the final 18 batters he faced.
“I think Caleb Gilbert was the story of the game, really,” Mainieri said. “He put the team on his back and steadied the ship.”
Early on, it looked like the two SEC West rivals were headed for another instant classic. Hitting first as the “visiting” team, LSU picked right up where it left off in the eighth inning the night before.
Robertson led off with a sharp single up the middle and Freeman walked on four pitches. Antoine Duplantis and Deichmann followed with RBI singles to chase Bulldog starter Jacob Billingsley, who left without recording an out.
Papierski drew a walk to lead off the second inning, and after another Robertson single up the middle, he got to trot home from third base on a balk to make it 3-0 early.
LSU lefty Jared Poche’ looked sharp early, striking out four of the first six batters he faced, but the wheels came off in the third inning.
No. 9 hitter Harrison Bragg cut into the lead with a long two-run home run to left. Mainieri was forced to hook the senior from his final start at the Box after he walked the bases loaded with one out, having thrown 10 of his final 13 pitches for balls.
It was career start No. 68 for Poche’, which tied a program record, and his final one at Alex Box Stadium. It unraveled in stunning fashion.
“I really didn’t want to take him out of the game,” the coach said, “but I felt I had to do what was best for the team. Jared understood that.”
Gilbert entered and Jake Mangum tied the game with an RBI infield single. Elijah MacNamee followed with an RBI single to center that put the Bulldogs ahead. Gilbert then got a strikeout and grounder to third to escape with LSU trailing by just a run.
The right hander stabilized the game, retiring eight in a row after the MacNamee single, including a shutdown 1-2-3 inning following LSU’s six-run fifth. A 31-minute rain delay stopped play in the top of the sixth inning, but Gilbert outlasted it.
He retired the side on five pitches in the sixth and struck out Stovall and All-American slugger Rooker in the seventh, his 13th and 14th consecutive batters retired. LSU’s pitching held the SEC’s triple-crown winner hitless in the super regional.
A one-out walk snapped his streak at 15, but it didn’t matter much. He induced a popup to short and froze MacNamee to end the eighth inning.
“It’s what we all came here to do; to go to Omaha,” Gilbert said.
LSU added on to the lead for good measure in the ninth as Robertson, batting for the final time in Alex Box Stadium, got plunked with the bases loaded. Freeman than doubled home two more runs in his final at-bat, picking up his first hit of the super regional.
Andy Cannizaro made LSU wait to celebrate, changing pitchers four times in the ninth inning. Then the rain came again, stopping play for 28 more minutes in the top of the ninth. After the delay, Duplantis dunked a two-run single to right for an exclamation mark of sorts.
Eventually Mainieri turned things over to veteran closer Hunter Newman to nail down the final three outs and set off a raucous celebration for everyone who stayed put long enough to see LSU punch its ticket.
“This isn’t the end,” Robertson said, the College World Series on his mind. “We’re ready to go.”
But first, Robertson had one bit of unfinished business before turning his attention to the Seminoles: replacing that image of Coastal Carolina dogpiling on his position that he’s stared at every day for a year.
“I had that picture,” Mainieri said.
“Me too,” Robertson replied. “I’m going to change it before I go to bed and never think about it again.”