A team that hadn’t won at least three straight games in a month and was one-and-done in the SEC tournament won three consecutive NCAA tournament elimination games in 1½ days and is three wins away from advancing to the College World Series.
Which, by the way, would be an unimaginable parting gift for retiring LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri.
Brilliant relief pitching performances from freshman Javen Coleman and senior Devin Fontenot, mixed with solo home runs from freshman right fielder Dylan Crews and junior left fielder Gavin Dugas, pushed the Tigers to 4-1 victory over NCAA Eugene Regional top seed Oregon Sunday night to force a deciding championship game.
LSU (37-23) will meet the Ducks (39-16) again at 9 p.m. CT Monday night with the winner advancing to play Tennessee in a Super Regional in Knoxville.
Earlier on Sunday afternoon, third-seed LSU eliminated second-seed Gonzaga 9-4 to earn the right to get a shot at Oregon.
“I told the guys after the (Oregon) game ‘you won’t let me retire, you keep making me work’,” Mainieri said. “But I’m happy to do it.”
He should be because the left-handed Coleman and the right-handed Fontenot held Oregon, which had a combined 20 runs and 23 hits in its first two regional wins over Central Connecticut State and Gonzaga, hitless and scoreless over the last six innings.
Coleman took over at the start of the second inning by design for surprise senior starter Trent Vietmeier, who retired three of four Oregon batters in the first inning.
Mixing his pitches with good control, Coleman allowed three hits as well as the Ducks’ lone run in third. He struck out six and walked three, delivering the best game of his young career after some mid-season struggles and growing pains.
“I really went back to basics,” Coleman said. “Me and A.D. (pitching coach Alan Dunn) always talk about filling the (strike) zone, letting it rip and going after hitters. When I do that, it’s usually lights out.”
The first five batters in Oregon’s lineup, all of whom were hitting .300 or better, were just a combined 3 for 18 with eight strikeouts against Coleman and Fontenot, who struck out Ducks’ catcher Sam Olsson with the bases loaded to end the game.
Oregon coach Mark Wasikjowski tipped his cap to the Tigers, particularly Coleman.
“He (Coleman) had a three-pitch mix up to 94 miles an hour with a breaking ball and a changeup he could throw for a strike whenever he wanted to,” Wasikowski said. “Anybody who is showing that, that’s what you see on TV when you watch major league baseball and often you don’t see somebody with good command of three pitches with that kind of velocity.”
Brett Walker, Oregon’s starting pitcher, threw well enough to win if he had received any offensive support in his 7.2 innings.
But six of the nine hits he allowed were for extra bases. And six of LSU’s nine hits came from Crews (3 for 3, 1 RBI, 2 runs scored) and Dugas (3 for 4, 1 RBI, 2 runs scored).
Crews hit a solo homer leading off the eighth for LSU’s final run. Dugas cracked a solo shot in the fourth inning and had an apparent inside-the-park homer in the sixth that the official scorer ruled as a triple with Dugas scoring on the fielding error.
“It was just being comfortable again,” Dugas said of his breakout night after going just 2-for-7 in the Tigers’ three previous games. “Me and Coach (Mainieri) had a conversation today during the game that motivated me in a way to kind of relax. Sometimes, I get to a point in my game where I try to do too much and put too much pressure on myself.”