Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Goodbye Alex Box! Hello Omaha, LSU's Coming Back

Seventy years of history at Alex Box Stadium ended on Monday night at 10:01 p.m. -- and the next era will start on Sunday in Omaha. LSU's rapid ascent back to the top of college baseball continued with an NCAA Super Regional thumping of UC Irvine, 21-7, to advance to the NCAA College World Series for the 14th time. “Omaha, here come the Tigers,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’ve been waiting to say that for so long, and I know that the Tiger Nation will follow us up there. Omaha, Nebraska, it just feels great to say. These kids would not be denied today, you could just see it. I went into the locker room about three hours before game time. They were loose, confident and having fun. There was not an ounce of nervousness in them. You could see the determination in their faces.”
A little over 24 hours earlier, LSU (48-17-1) was down to its final three outs and trailed the Anteaters (42-18) by three runs before staging a comeback for the ages that resulted in the Tigers setting up an NCAA Super Regional winner-take-all game. LSU carried the momentum from Sunday’s thriller into Monday night and closed out the grand old ballpark by securing the program’s first Omaha appearance since 2004.
A stadium record 8,173 fans packed into every available space to watch the 1,723rd and final game at “The Box” as LSU improved to 30-6 on championship day in NCAA postseason play. The actual attendance shattered the previous mark of 7,607 set against Texas A&M in the second game of the 2004 NCAA Baton Rouge Super Regional.
LSU will play North Carolina in the opening round of the 2008 NCAA College World Series at 6 p.m. Sunday. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN 2.
The Tigers connected for seven home runs and used a memorable six-run first inning that featured three consecutive blasts from designated hitter Blake Dean, catcher Micah Gibbs and first baseman Matt Clark. LSU added three more runs over the next two frames and put the game out of reach with a seven-run uprising in the fifth. “It was the confidence level that these kids had tonight,” Mainieri said. “Back-to-back-to-back home runs in the first inning, I think it sent the message that we meant business. Nothing was going to stand in our way tonight.”
UC Irvine starter Bryce Stowell (8-3) entered the rubber game with a 2.77 ERA and a .236 opponent’s batting average. Stowell, who blanked Oral Roberts for seven innings in the NCAA Lincoln Regional, suffered his shortest outing of the season, allowing six runs – five earned -- without making it out of the first inning.
LSU tallied 21 runs – the most in an NCAA postseason game since posting 21 runs against UL-Monroe at the 2000 Baton Rouge Regional -- and the Tigers pounded a school postseason record 24 hits. Dean tied a school record with five of those hits and became the first LSU player to reach the five-hit plateau since Ryan Patterson did so against Tennessee on May 14, 2005.
Shortstop Michael Hollander started the barrage when he drew a four-pitch, leadoff walk, and left fielder Jared Mitchell singled. A balk was then ruled on Stowell and Hollander came into score the first run. Dean immediately crushed an offering over the right field wall for a two-run homer. Gibbs followed and lined an opposite field, solo shot over the left field wall. Clark gave the Alex Box faithful yet another memory when he lifted his nation-leading 26th homer over the left-centerfield wall to complete the back-to-back-to-back blasts.
The feat represented the second time LSU had homered in three consecutive at-bats this season and the first time in NCAA postseason play since Brad Cresse, Clint Earnhardt and Wes Davis did so against Mississippi State in the second inning of a 1998 College World Series contest.
Clark tied Eddy Furniss (1996) for sixth place in single-season home runs and matched Florida State’s Buster Posey for the national lead with his 26th dinger of the season.
Back-to-back doubles by Dean and Gibbs led to another run in the second, and Mitchell lined an RBI single through the right side in the third.
The 8-1 margin proved to be sufficient for LSU starter Blake Martin, who made his 17th start of the season. Martin worked into the fifth inning, issuing only two runs on five hits while striking out three and walking one.
After he exited, LSU put the game out of reach with seven runs in the bottom of the fifth. Second baseman Ryan Schimpf drove in three runs in the frame, launching a leadoff homer to start the inning and closing the scoring with a two-run double into the right field corner. Right fielder Derek Helenihi added a two-run single and the Tigers took a 16-2 advantage into the later innings.
Junior right-hander Jordan Brown (5-0) inherited the lead and qualified for the victory, allowing two runs on four hits in two innings of relief.
Schimpf added his second homer in the seventh, a two-run blast that gave him five RBI for the game. Freshman outfielder Johnny Dishon connected for a solo shot in the same inning, and junior first baseman Buzzy Haydel, who replaced Clark, launched his first homer of the season in the eighth to punctuate the final homer in the stadium’s history and give the Tigers a 20-7 lead. Dishon entered for centerfielder Leon Landry, who was hit in the eye by the ball while attempting to make another incredible catch in the fifth. Landry was OK after the game and should be ready to play Sunday.
Fittingly, Hollander, the Tigers’ lone senior position player, drove an RBI single through the left side in his final home at-bat that accounted for the final margin.
Freshman Anthony Ranaudo tossed the final inning and recorded the final out in Alex Box Stadium history when second baseman Tyler Hoechlin grounded out to the right-hander. Haydel earned the final putout and tossed the ball into the air to give the Alex Box faithful one lasting image. “There was no other way to send this stadium out, except to go out there and get the job done,”Mainieri said. “I’m just so happy for the people who have invested so much into this program and their support. It makes us feel so great that they got one more night in the memorable stadium.”

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