By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — Playing do-or-die games is kind of like walking a tight rope: there’s no margin for error.
LSU’s usually-reliable defense buckled a bit early, and the resulting wobble wound up costing the Tigers their season.
Florida captured the 2017 National Championship at TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday night by virtue of a 6-1 victory over LSU, sweeping the College World Series Finals to bring home the hardware for the first time in program history.
This will go down as the first LSU team ever to reach the College World Series Finals and not come home with the trophy, and the Tigers came so close to forcing a winner-take-all third game that this one will sting for a while.
LSU appeared poised to tie the game in the seventh inning after a Josh Smith RBI double broke up what to that point had been a listless shutout. Jake Slaughter then singled to left to put runners on the corners with nobody out in a 2-1 ballgame.
Here’s where things got crazy.
Mike Papierski grounded into a 4-6-3 double play that would’ve brought the tying run home. However, the umpire called Slaughter for interference for hook sliding out of the baseline, and by rule, no runners can advance on such a play, so Smith was sent back to third base.
“My baserunner told me he did slide into the base. The umpire told me he didn’t,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Somebody is not telling me the truth. I don’t know who it is. We’ll find out, though. I assure you of that.”
A lengthy argument ensued as fans threw garbage and beach balls onto the field. Once the game reset, Beau Jordan got robbed of a game-tying hit by a sliding grab in center field.
Successive singles from Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman put the tying run on third with no outs again in the eighth.
Antoine Duplantis struck out, bringing up Greg Deichmann, who hit a chopper to first. JJ Schwartz picked it on a hop and gunned down Robertson, running on contact, at the plate. Zach Watson then lined out sharply to center to end the threat.
“We just felt snake bit right there,” Mainieri said. “It just felt like it wasn’t meant to be for us tonight.”
They wouldn’t get another chance.
Zack Hess, who entered in the sixth, surrendered precious insurance runs LSU couldn’t afford to yield. Utterly brilliant to get LSU to this point, the freshman allowed four runs in the eighth to dig the hole far too deep for a struggling offense to climb out of.
“That one is on me,” a visibly dejected Hess said. “I didn’t do my job. If you don’t do your job, you don’t win ball games.”
It’s a bitter end to what’s been a magical, at times improbable run to the verge of a seventh national championship.
A consensus top-five club in the preseason polls, bullpen injuries and inconsistency in the lineup around Greg Deichmann caused LSU to find itself at a middling 27-15 in late April. Veteran leaders, Kramer Robertson in particular, called for a renewed sense of urgency before a trip to Alabama.
The team responded with 12 wins in its final 14 regular-season games. The Tigers clinched the SEC West and a share of the overall SEC crown by virtue of a dramatic road sweep of Mississippi State on the final weekend of the regular season.
LSU kept it rolling right into the postseason, romping its way to an SEC Tournament Championship in Hoover the next weekend. The Tigers rolled through an underwhelming NCAA Regional bracket and took care of Mississippi State two more times in the super regional to punch its ticket to Omaha.
Oregon State, losers of just four games all season, snapped LSU’s 17-game winning streak in emphatic, blowout fashion. Bound and determined, LSU rode three brilliant pitching performances through the loser’s bracket and stunned the mighty Beavers twice to set up an All-SEC championship series.
“We did a lot of great things this year that we’ve got to try to keep in our minds,” Deichmann said. “Remember the positives of our times at LSU.”
A sloppy start set the stage for a night of heartbreak.
Two errors charged to first baseman Nick Coomes led to a pair on unearned runs, putting LSU in an early hole. Coomes, who hadn’t started since the 13-1 loss to Oregon State last Monday, was pulled from the game for Slaughter shortly after.
Poche’ pitched around three errors and six Florida hits to strand seven baserunners over the first three innings, effectively keeping the Tigers’ hopes alive. All things considered, a vintage Poche’ exhibition in minimizing damage.
“You can’t blame anybody,” Papierski said. “We had to come up with big hits, and we didn’t.”
Still, it was more than LSU could muster against rookie right-hander Tyler Dyson with the winds howling straight in for the first time in this College World Series. He pitched a career-high six innings allowing three hits in the second start of his college career.
Loud contact translated into lazy fly balls for Smith and Papierski in the second inning. Deichmann appeared to square one up in the sixth only to see it caught in medium depth center field.
Poche’ got LSU into the sixth inning before being hooked in favor of Hess, summoned to limit the damage. The winningest pitcher in program history scattered seven hits and a walk over 5.2 innings in his final appearance in purple and gold.
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