Before Monday night, the last time LSU baseball won an NCAA tournament road regional or super regional was 1989.
Before Monday night, just five Division 1 teams since 2004 had ever lost the first game of a regional and came back to win it.
Before Monday night, no LSU player had ever hit two consecutive first-pitch home runs in two straight at-bats off the same pitcher.
Before Monday night in 51 previous career appearances, LSU pitcher Landon Marceaux never earned a win as a reliever.
Before Monday night, Tigers’ designated hitter Cade Beloso’s lack of blazing speed ever forced an opposing pitcher to balk in the go-ahead run.
Before Monday night, LSU hadn’t won a game all season when trailing after seven innings.
Before Monday night, LSU hadn’t won four straight games in just more than a month, much less four straight elimination contests in which a loss would end the season and the 39-year career of Tigers’ head coach Paul Mainieri.
But then came a crisp, cool Monday night when after five lead changes, a combined five home runs and seven relief pitchers, LSU manufactured three eighth inning runs and held on for a 9-8 victory to edge host Oregon in the NCAA Eugene Regional championship game.
“It was one for the ages for us to be able to win four straight (games) and the regional championship after losing the first game,” said Mainieri, who hugged his wife Karen afterwards and was given the game ball that LSU right fielder Dylan Crews caught for the final out.
Oregon’s season ended at 39-16, but the 38-23 Tigers eagerly move on to the Super Regionals at No. 3 national seed Tennessee, which will start Saturday at 6 p.m. This season on March 26-28 in LSU’s third SEC series of year, the Tigers were swept at Tennessee by a combined four runs.
At that point, LSU was 1-8 in SEC play. The young Tigers rallied back, finishing 13-17 in the league by winning four of their last five series including the final three.
LSU’s one game at-a-time focus and approach to rally for an at-large NCAA tournament bid served the Tigers well in winning the Eugene Regional despite being the No. 3 seed in the four-team field.
After the Tigers were dazzled in a four-hit, 2-0 shutout by Gonzaga’s Alek Jacob on Friday, they pounded 44 hits including 11 doubles, seven homers and two triples in subsequent wins over Central Connecticut State (6-5 in 10 innings) on Saturday, Gonzaga (9-4) and Oregon (4-1) on Sunday and in Monday night’s wild affair.
“Halfway through the SEC (schedule), our backs were pretty much against the wall,” said LSU left fielder Gavin Dugas, voted the Eugene Regional MVP after blasting a two-run first-pitch homer in the first inning Monday night and a first-pitch solo homer in the fourth inning, both off Oregon starting pitcher Andrew Mosiello. “We needed to start doing things to put us in better position to get to the postseason.
“We took it one game at a time. That’s what we did after losing the first game in this regional. That’s why I’m so confident in this team that they understand how to handle pressure. We’ve been used to it all season. It was nothing we can’t handle.”
LSU’s biggest worry entering the postseason was wondering if it had the pitching depth to win four or five games in three or four days.
Because LSU starters Marceaux (5.2 innings pitched in game 1 vs. Gonzaga), Ma’Khail Hilliard (4.0 IP in game 2 vs. Central Connecticut State) and AJ Labas (8.0 IP in game 3 vs. Gonzaga) went deep into games, five of the eight relievers LSU used in its first four regional games pitched no more than one inning.
It left Mainieri with plenty of pitching options for Monday’s deciding game. He ended up using seven pitchers, two (Hillard, Marceaux) who had already started regional games and another (Garrett Edwards) who pitched six relief innings vs. CCS.
Hilliard, a senior, started Monday and pitched a flawless first inning. Marceaux, a junior who’s normally LSU’s Friday night starter, closed the game allowing one run in 2.1 innings.
In between the two experienced hurlers, Mainieri deployed true freshmen Ty Floyd, Michael Flowers, Will Helmers and Edwards. They all allowed two or more runs, except for Helmers who shutout the Ducks in his two innings.
LSU trailed 5-2 after 3½ innings, but the Tigers scored two runs in their half of the fourth keyed by Dugas’ second homer and two runs in sixth when center fielder Drew Bianco’s two-run homer gave LSU a 6-5 lead.
Oregon countered with designated hitter Kenyon Yovan’s two-run homer off Edwards for a 7-6 Ducks’ advantage in the seventh.
Then, came LSU’s game-deciding three-run eighth inning that started with a leadoff walk by Dugas and then a double by third baseman Cade Doughty moving Dugas to third base.
After Bianco struck out, Beloso whacked a hard grounder on a 2-1 pitch to Oregon first baseman Gabe Matthews. He fired the ball to catcher Sam Olsson, who was a tad late tagging Dugas who slid across the plate with the tying run at 7-7.
With Doughty on third base, Beloso on first base and shortstop Jordan Thompson at the plate facing Oregon closer Kolby Somers, Mainieri ordered a safety squeeze bunt.
After Somers’ first pitch to Thompson was a ball, Mainieri called off the bunt but Oregon still thought it was on. Interspersed for the next few pitches, Somers kept throwing the ball to first baseman Matthews to keep Beloso, who hadn’t attempted to steal a base all year, in check and to get LSU to show its hand whether it was bunting.
Finally, Oregon got its signals crossed. As Somers stepped on the rubber to throw, Matthews began charging toward the plate anticipating a bunt. Somers turned to throw to Matthews again, thinking he was on the first base bag.
When he half-heartedly tossed the ball to Matthews a few feet away, home plate umpire Mike Morris immediately called a balk, sending Doughty across the plate with the go-ahead run at 8-7 as Beloso advanced to second.
”For us, we’re always going to be aggressive,” Oregon coach Mark Wasikowski said of his strategy behind the throws to first. “We’re going to use plays we have that are designed to eliminate runs and win games. Tonight, it didn’t work; it’s very disappointing.”
After the balk, Mainieri immediately subbed the speedier Will Safford as a pinch-runner for Beloso. The move paid off when Thompson’s RBI single scored Safford for a 9-7 lead.
As it turned out, the extra run was needed.
Marceaux gave up a run and three hits in the ninth, the last a two-out infield single (Oregon’s 14th hit of the game) that put the game-tying run at third base and the game-winning run at first with Ducks’ third baseman Sam Novitske coming to the plate.
That’s when Mainieri made a mound visit to Marceaux, who had lobbied since Friday’s loss to Gonzaga he was ready to pitch again as soon as possible if Mainieri needed him.
“That (Novitske) was going to be his (Marceaux’s) last batter,” Mainieri said. “I just couldn’t take the ball from him.”
Marceaux worked Novitske into a 1-2 count before forcing him to hit a game-ending fly ball to a well-positioned Crews in right field.
“I don’t know what to say about the resiliency of this team, it wants to win,” Marceaux said. “We’ve had some really tough breaks all year, a ball not bouncing our way, or a pitch not being made or one at-bat away from the big hit.
“Just to keep fighting and put ourselves in the position to move on is a big thing itself.”