Beaten by Bayou Bengals… and Baseball

The Army baseball team had enough to contend with on Friday afternoon in the form of the Louisiana State Tigers, a member of college baseball royalty hosting yet another regional en route to what will probably be another College World Series appearance.

It was therefore overwhelmingly unfair that the Black Knights had to contend with a second opponent in only their second-ever NCAA regional appearance: the game of baseball itself.

You might look at the 9-0 final score and think that LSU summarily routed Army at Alex Box Stadium. You might think the Black Knights aren't in LSU's league, unworthy of being on the same field as the highly-decorated Tigers, bearer of four national titles in the past decade.

You'd be wrong.

You'd be wrong because, in the game of baseball, little things not connected to skill (or lack thereof) often carry a disproportionate impact on the ebb-and-flow and, ultimately, the outcome of a game. Such was the case for a luckless Army team on Friday in Baton Rouge.

After three innings, Army freshman sensation Nick Hill was matching LSU starter Justin Meier in a classic pitcher's duel. In any well-pitched ballgame, but especially in the postseason, these "anything you can do, I can do better" confrontations, in which the two starting pitchers throw zeroes at each other in a supreme staredown, only get more tense and heated with each scoreless inning. As a result, the team that can eventually break the ice and register the first tally is the team that gains a huge advantage, certainly on the scoreboard but also in terms of psychology. Scoring first in a pitching duel is a way of saying, "we outlasted you; you cracked." This reality often has a spillover effect for the rest of the contest, in which runaway momentum only builds and takes on a life of its own. At the college level, this presence of runaway momentum is far more constant—and decisive as well—compared to the pros, who play three times as many games in a year as the college boys do.

With all this in mind, the top of the fourth witnessed the Black Knights mount a scoring threat in their bid to get the all-important first run of the game. With runners at first and second and two outs, Army's Jeremy Stache smacked one of three hits he'd collect on this snake-bitten afternoon on the Bayou. With a runner on second and two outs, one would think that a base hit into the outfield would plate a run.,

Well, in the brand of baseball that, unlike the Bigs, involves aluminum bats, balls will reach outfielders that much quicker. Stache's single was hit too hard for Nate Stone—the runner on second, who had doubled with one out in the inning—to come around and score. As many longtime observers of baseball have remarked over the years, "less is more and more is less" in baseball. A weak, fisted blooper just over the infield, and Stone easily speeds around to score that huge, game-changing first run. But a laser-like lash from Stache's bat—hit with authority—gave Stone no extra time to travel 180 feet against the threat of LSU right-fielder Jon Zeringue's cannon. Alas, Stone had to hold up at third and contemplate, along with his Army teammates, what might have been.

You can then imagine how the rest of the story played out. Meier, lucky to not trail 1-0, bounced back and, on a full count no less (all the more teasingly frustrating for the Black Knights), struck out Army's Kyle Scogin with the bases loaded to escape the jam.

Obviously buoyed and awakened from slumber by that huge psychological boost, the Tigers—so close to trailing in the top of the fourth—promptly ambushed Hill in the bottom of the fourth, in a classic display of how baseball games involve massive momentum shifts from one half inning to another. A two-run triple by LSU's Blake Gill, followed by an RBI single from the Tigers' J.C. Holt, proved decisive.

Stunned by the events of the fourth inning, Army's bats could never get going, and in the seventh, Hill, who performed capably and gallantly in a pressure-cooker situation, wore down under the enormous strain of having to pitch from behind and not give LSU any more insurance runs. The newly-confident Tigers sent him to the showers with one out in the seventh, and then proceeded to bury Army's bullpen with six runs in their final two at-bats, with two of those runs being charged to Hill.

That's how the 9-0 score came about: it was as deceptive a 9-0 game as you could find, for if Jeremy Stache's single was hit in a softer and less authoritative way, Nate Stone plates the first run of the game and silences a raucous LSU home crowd.

But it didn't happen that way in a sport where hitters who fail 65 percent of the time (.350 batting average) are sure-fire hall of famers.

Army can only hope that luck will complement the Black Knights' considerable skill in today's elimination game against the College of Charleston. Top Stories