Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tigers pound Anteaters to win super regional

For college baseball players everywhere, the word "Omaha" rolls off the tongue like no other.
LSU’s proud army of baseball legacies knows that all too well.
Now the newest batch of Tigers can say “We’re goin’ to Omaha.”
They also know all about dog piles and victory laps around an old ball yard that has seen her share of celebrations.
With the memory of a stirring ninth-inning comeback the night before fresh in their minds and an emotionally charged start as the launching pad, the Tigers punched their ticket to Omaha and the College World Series in explosive and dominating style Monday night.
In the process of romping past shell-shocked Cal Irvine 21-7, LSU also composed the final chapter in the proud and nostalgic history of Alex Box Stadium.
“There was no way we were going to let you down (Monday),” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said in remarks to the crowd afterward. “No way!”
Never before had more people crammed into The Box than the 8,173 noisy souls who did for the decisive game of a super regional series that began with a major letdown and very nearly lowered the curtain on the proud old stadium and LSU’s season Sunday.
With a last-inning reprieve that fueled a 9-7 triumph Sunday, the Tigers lived to fight again and they — along with the buzzing, ready-to-erupt crowd — brought everything they had into the series finale.
LSU rattled seven Anteaters pitchers for season-highs of 24 hits and seven home runs and survived the electricity that came dangerously close to boiling over in the first inning.
All of that extensive damage kept the crowd interested, but the Tigers (48-17-1) might very well have sapped any doubt about the game’s outcome with a first inning that seemed to be an extension of the night before.
Sparked by three straight home runs, LSU notched six runs in the first inning and chased UC Irvine starter Bryce Stowell.
“Emotions were huge,” said Tigers catcher Micah Gibbs, who hit one of the long balls. “Getting the fans into it was huge. The more they got into and the more runs we scored, we felt like we were stepping on (UCI’s) throat.”
Taking a path that has sparked so many comebacks this season and especially during a late-season surge that is now 25 victories in 26 games, the Tigers got a little bit of something from a lot of people and big blows from others.
Senior Michael Hollander started the LSU first by walking on four pitches and scooted around to third when Jared Mitchell rammed a single to shallow right.
Stowell, the Anteaters’ hero in the regional championship game eight days earlier, spun and threw to first to try to catch Mitchell leaning and did. But first-base umpire Mark Ditsworth immediately called a balk on Stowell, allowing Hollander to trot home for a 1-0 Tigers lead.
If that didn’t completely rattle Stowell, the next three batters did as LSU got back-to-back-to-back home runs from Blake Dean, Gibbs and Matt Clark — the last boosting the Tigers lead to 5-0.
“You don’t see that very often and I think that sent the message right away that we meant business (Monday) and nothing was going to stand in our way,” Mainieri said.
Tempers nearly flared when Anteaters catcher Adam Lowenstein jawed with Clark and several other LSU players, prompting home-plate umpire David Rogers to have brief, fiery conversations with Mainieri and Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie.
“I don’t think the kids were doing anything out of line,” Mainieri said. “They were just being very emotional and energetic. I want them to be that way. I believe in enthusiasm and emotional can carry you along way in college baseball. They were fired up. Nothing was going to stop these kids (Monday).”
Once order was restored, the Tigers tacked on a sixth run when Leon Landry reached on an error and Ryan Schimpf struck the first blow of a three-hit (two homers), four-RBI night with a double.
There was plenty of firepower after that, as Dean finished 5-for-5, Gibbs collected three hits and three RBIs and LSU got home runs from Schimpf (twice), Johnny Dishon and Buzzy Haydel.
And the Anteaters didn’t go quietly, pushing across five runs in the final three innings when they were trailing 16-2.
But the first inning set the tone that began the night before when LSU erased a 7-4 deficit with five runs in the top of the ninth inning to stave off elimination.
“Against a team like UC Irvine, one of the things coach preaches to us is to get ahead,” said Hollander, who drew a standing ovation in the final at-bat of his LSU career. “We were excited and we knew we needed to jump on them early.”
If that was the message the Tigers got before the game, it wasn’t only the hitters who took it to heart.
LSU pitcher Blake Martin kept UCI (42-18) in check for the first four innings, permitting only a single run and three hits as the Tigers’ lead swelled.
Combined with five shutout innings to close out Sunday’s come-from-behind triumph, Martin’s opening salvo loomed huge.
“What won the game for us was Blake Martin going out there in the top of the first inning and pitching so well,” Mainieri said. “He set the tone that he was going to take charge of the game and that gave our hitters a lot of confidence.”
The Anteaters got to Martin for another run in the fifth to end his night, but there was little doubt that his ability to keep UCI runners off base was a major key.
UC Irvine recorded only one sacrifice bunt after laying down seven successfully in the first two games. Playing from so far behind forced the pesky ’Eaters to step out of character.
“Coming out and getting on them early like that really put them on their heels,” Gibbs said. “They’re a hit-and-run and bunting team and we took them out of their game.”
Jordan Brown (5-0) came on for Martin and got the victory in relief. Freshmen relievers Austin Ross and Anthony Ranaudo each pitched an inning to close it out — Ranaudo sealing LSU’s 14th trip to the College World Series when he retired the Anteaters in order.
When UCI’s Tyler Hoechlin tapped back to Raunado with two outs, the strapping Tigers pitcher calmly tossed the ball to Haydel at first. Once the ball — and reality — settled in, the LSU players charged onto the field and piled onto Ranaudo as The Box erupted for one final time.
Former Tigers coach Skip Bertman took a microphone to the middle of the diamond to MC the celebration for one last time at The Box.
The Tigers, whose season seemed like it was going nowhere in late April before a single-season school and Southeastern Conference record winning streak, took their last victory lap around the ballpark, a warm-up lap for a sendoff to Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.
Also known as Alex Box North when LSU went to Omaha 13 times between 1986-2004 and ran off five national championships from 1991-2000.
Hollander was in the stands at The Box — the ones in Baton Rouge and Omaha. Now he’ll take the diamond at the Tigers’ familiar home away from home.
“I’ve been a big fan of LSU as long as I can remember,” Hollander said. “I’ve got a lot of memories here and it’s great to be part of a memory. Obviously it’s something I won’t forget. To be a part of this is unbelievable.”

1 comment:

Duke Eversmeyer said...

Terrific piece on the 2008 edition of the baseball Tigers, tracing their phenomenal 23 game winning streak right through those last two incredible super regional games.

Hey, I might have to write the Times-Picayune and recommend you to take Peter Finney's place if he ever finally retires. What a legendary sports writer he's been!

You know, Paul Mainieri and I played together on the 1976 team, he as a freshman during my sophomore year. The following year I think went on to UNO. He was an outfielder and I a relief pitcher. He hasn't changed -- great guy and the right choice by AD Bertman to "bring back the glory" which he has in such a big way, just in time to make a great transition with a winner to the "new" Alex Box next year.

I had walked on in 1975, the year we won the SEC Championship -- 2 years after the great shortstop/QB Mike Miley lost his life tragically in that one car accident on Highland Rd. at Rodney Drive -- for the first time since 1961. We had some strong senior pitchers who carried us through. In those pre-Bertman days, we had maybe 300 fans in Alex Box for home games..hehe. And our coach, Jim Smith, was the football equipment manager.

We went straight downhill after that successful 1975 40-16 team. I didn't play my senior year because I was in management, with Cutco, working my way through to help Dad with tuition, frat dues, etc.

Oh, and Jill graduated on my birthday, May 10, from Rhodes in Biology Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa (one of only 35 of a graduating class of 410). Some jerk genetics professor gave her a low mark for "class participation" which kept her from Magna Cum Laude by 1/100th of a point (3.85 is required, she got to 3.84).

Anyway, she made the toughest decision in her life, opting to stay home for medical school, although letters such as yours made perfect sense. I think she felt she just wanted to live at home for awhile, with the library just a few blocks away when she needs to crack down. Hopefully she will overcome the deficiencies with the former "flagship" school down here. It was her decision and we of course back her, although your letter and other recommendations made it harder to decide.

Take care and we'll have to chat about the Celtics-Lakers soon. Can the Celtics win a game in L.A.?? That's the big question.


Mike McCall