So many times with so many teams, the magic has been there whenever LSU needed it.
And the 8,978 noisy rambunctious souls at Alex Box Stadium on Sunday night weren’t about let this latest chance slip by.
Ignited by the baseball voodoo Tigers’ fans know as Alex Box magic, LSU clawed back from behind and stunned Oregon State 6-5 in 10 innings to punch a ticket into the Super Regional round for the first time since 2009.
The Box was loud, it crackled with energy and it came alive in the ninth and 10th innings to make a major difference.
Tigers shortstop Austin Nola scored on a wild pitch in the 10th inning and closer Nick Goody was lights out in the bottom of that frame to propel No. 1-ranked LSU (46-16) past the 16th-ranked Beavers (40-20) in another game for the ages.
“Going up there, the crowds, I’m speechless,” said Tigers right fielder Alex Edward, struggling to grasp what transpired. Edward chased in the tying run in the ninth inning with a double. “I can’t explain it.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri took a stab it with a little more luck.
“It’s what separates LSU from every other program in the country,” he said after guiding the Tigers to their third Super Regional berth in his six-year tenure. “You can almost sense the will that they impose on our team and, frankly, we don’t want to let them down.”
The Tigers didn’t, and this one took some strange wrinkles and – as always seems to be the case – some unexpected heroes.
LSU trailed 5-3 after six innings when OSU shortstop Tyler Smith finally broke through against starter Ryan Eades, who again battled but didn’t have top-shelf stuff.
The Beavers chipped away at an early 3-0 deficit with single runs in the first, second and fourth innings and constantly put pressure on Eades. But he nearly recorded his first 1-2-3 inning in the sixth when he struck out Ryan Barnes, who had doubled in his first two at-bats, and won a long battle with Kavin Keyes when he coaxed him into a fly out to Edward in right after nine pitches.
Eades got a 2-and-2 count on catcher Ryan Gorton, who spoiled the bid for a perfect frame by ramming a single into center field. John Tommasini, a .216 hitter when the night began, walked on a full-count pitch and Eades dug the hole deeper when he plunked Max Gordon to load the bases.
A visit from pitching coach Alan Dunn didn’t equate to success, as Smith rolled a single through the middle – the Beavers’ third and fourth runs with two outs – to give Oregon State its first lead, 5-3.
Mainieri admitted afterward he should’ve lifted Eades earlier, but said he didn’t want to insert Nick Rumbelow into the game in a bases-loaded situation. Instead, Rumbelow entered after Smith’s hit and struck out slugger Michael Conforto to quell the threat.
That triggered a stretch of 4.1 scoreless innings for the Tigers’ bullpen: 2.1 by Rumbelow and one each from Chris Cotton and Goody.
“I thought Nick Rumbelow was very key to the game, for him to come in and stem the tide there for us,” Mainieri said.
As effective as the LSU bullpen was, the comeback also required some offense and the Tigers generated that in different ways to close the gap, tie the score and finally go back ahead.
In the top of the seventh inning, OSU reliever Scott Schultz hit Grant Dozar with a pitch to give LSU its first leadoff man on base since the first inning. Edward rolled a ball through Beavers’ third baseman Ryan Dunn’s legs for the third of his four errors.
Things got off track when Mainieri sent both runners with Tyler Hanover at bat, and Gorton gunned Edward down at second base. Dozar got to third base, though, and when Hanover scorched a grounder that caromed off Dunn’s glove, Dozar dashed home close the deficit to 5-4.
But Schultz’s dominant day – 8.2 innings, 3 hits allowed – hit a snag in the ninth inning when Ty Ross cranked a leadoff double to center field on the first pitch of the frame.
With Jared Foster pinch-running, Dozar fanned for the first out. Edward had just one hit in first 10 regional at-bats, but he launched a double into the left-center field gap to send Foster scurrying home with the tying run.
“I had been struggling all weekend, but when you have the crowd behind you and all your teammates behind you and you get a good pitch to hit and are able to barrel it up, there’s no better feeling in the world,” Edward said.
Cotton took over for Rumbelow in the OSU ninth and ran into trouble when Conforto hammered a ball to center field that Foster nearly tracked down but couldn’t. Conforto raced to second base with one out, but was stranded when Cotton struck out Danny Hayes and coaxed Dunn into a fly ball that veered toward the right-field line where Edward made a nice running catch.
That led to the 10th inning, and with the Box crowd bubbling with anticipation, Nola did what he has done the last few weeks from the leadoff spot – played fire starter.
Reliever Dylan Davis zipped two strikes by Nola before he took the next four pitches to draw a leadoff walk. Jones was given the signal to bunt, but he took one strike and fouled off another to fall behind. Eventually the count went full before Jones clubbed an opposite-field double off the right-field fence.
“I was pretty mad when I didn’t get it down, but I wasn’t going to strike out,” Jones said. “I thought it was going to go foul at first. I knew I had gotten it good when the crowd got wild.”
Katz stepped in with two teammates in scoring position, and Davis’ second pitch squirted by Gorton behind the plate, clanging off his glove and slowly rolling to the backstop to allow Nola to dart home with the go-ahead run.
That was all the Tigers got, as OSU coach Pat Casey went through three more pitchers to prevent any more damage, despite the bases staying loaded for the rest of the inning.
With the narrow lead, Mainieri turned the game over to Goody, who had been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons after his ninth-inning meltdown against Mississippi State at the SEC Tournament resulted in a 4-3 loss.
Unlike that day, Goody was nearly untouchable as he struck out Barnes, Keyes and Gorton for his 11th save to send LSU into the Super Regional round.
“There were never any ghosts for me,” Goody said. “It’s just baseball and you have to learn from it. Honestly I’m happy that I struggled because I learned from it and came back hungrier.”
The Tigers came out hungry and seized command from the get-go.
Nola took a leadoff walk from Oregon State starter Taylor Starr and Jones laced a single to right field, putting runners on the corners. Jones was nabbed stealing by Starr for the first out.
Katz took some of that sting away when he pounded a single the left side to score Nola for a 1-0 lead. Rhymes made it hurt much less when he rammed a two-run home run into the left-field bleachers, his fourth blast of the season.
That prompted Casey to call on Schultz, the Beavers’ closer, and he made life miserable for LSU over the next 5.2 innings, mowing down 16 of 18 in that span.
With LSU’s offense bogged down, OSU pecked away against Eades.
An error on center fielder Arby Fields set up a run in the first on Conforto’s sacrifice fly. Gorton punched a two-out single to score Barnes in the second. And Tommasini plated the tying run in the fourth – again with two outs – after Barnes began the at-bat with his second straight double.
That set the stage for OSU to take the lead, and later for the Box magic to take effect.
For many of LSU’s in-state players, there have been memories of sitting in the crowd and watching comeback wins. Now those players have a different, much more personal perspective.
“I always imagined what it would be like, but this exceeded my expectations,” Katz said.
Added Cotton, “This was electric. The crowd made a huge difference for us.”
The Tigers will await their Super Regional foe, with Central Florida (45-16) and Stony Brook (49-12) set to collide in a decisive third game at the Coral Gables Regional.
Should the Knights move on and come to Baton Rouge, it would pit Mainieri against UCF coach Terry Rooney, for five years an assistant under LSU’s coach – three at Notre Dame and two with the Tigers.
“I’m rooting like crazy for Terry,” Mainieri said. “He worked with me for five years. Unbelievably loyal guy, hard worker. He was a big part of our 2009 national championship team. We kind of built it together, and when you do things like that you don’t ever forget. Our friendship will trump anything that happens on the field.
“I hope he wins and then we’ll have to deal with the idea that we have to complete with each other to go to Omaha.”
The Super Regional will start either Friday or Saturday, with LSU likely to draw three evening games as part of the pre-determined ESPN schedule.