LSU's offense overcame Murphy's Law to defeat Sam Houston State, 8-5, on Saturday and advance to the Baton Rouge regional championship game.
Despite a first inning that saw three LSU errors and five unearned runs for the Bearkats, the Tigers pulled through with a four-run eighth inning to provide some postseason magic at Alex Box Stadium.
"This was one of the more wild games that we've had," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "I told the players after the game it was probably the most gratifying, enjoyable win I've had in my career."
Facing a one-run deficit with six outs to work with, Alex Bregman kick started a late rally with a lead off single to right field. Mason Katz followed that with a walk to bring up Raph Rhymes with a runner in scoring position.
With the runners moving, Rhymes drilled one directly at SHSU SS Carter Burgess, who couldn't get a handle and allowed the game-tying run to score on an error.
"I was trying to get something started and get some energy going," Bregman said. "After I got on base, Mason and Raph all did great jobs…It was a great team win."
The floodgates opened from there as Christian Ibarra was hit to reload the bases and the go-ahead run came around to score on a wild pitch. Ty Ross plated one more with a RBI-single to left field and the fourth run came in when Alex Edward drew a bases-loaded walk.
"Every run can matter," Mainieri said. "Adding each run meant a lot to us."
It was an uphill climb for LSU to even remain in shouting distance after Sam Houston scored five in the opening frame.
An error by Ibarra in the first at-bat would prove to be a theme, as the Tigers committed three in the inning. After Jessie Plumlee reached on the Ibarra miscue, he advanced to third on a wild pitch and groundout. Then he came around to score on the second error of the inning, this one by Bregman.
Kevin Miller doubled to put two in scoring position for Ryan O'Hearn, who popped out in foul territory, allowing Anthony Azar to score from third. The next batter, Luke Plucheck, sent a grounder through Ibarra's legs for his second error and the Bearkats' third run as Miller came around to score.
Burgess sent in another with a RBI-double down the left field line, and Ryan Farney tacked on one more with a RBI-single to right, making it 5-1 after one inning of play.
"Murphy's Law was so present," Mainieri said. "Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong in that first inning. We had some extremely uncharacteristic defensive lapses…It took the whole game to do it, but I never had any doubt that we would win this game."
With little help from his defense, Aaron Nola labored through 42 pitches in that first inning. With a thin pitching staff, Mainieri wanted Nola to go deep into Saturday's game in order to preserve LSU's bullpen. But after the disastrous first inning, it seemed the Tigers would need a miracle for Nola to even go five.
But Nola settled in for the remainder of the game, only needing 69 pitches to work six more innings of scoreless ball. He retired nine of the next 11 batters after the first inning, striking out four straight at one point.
He only surrendered three hits after the opening frame and escaped a bases loaded jam in the fifth inning with a soft dribbler to short.
"The key to the game was Aaron Nola regrouping, putting that first inning behind us and throwing up six goose eggs," Mainieri said. "He kept us in the game and gave us a chance to chip away and get back into it."
Chip away is exactly what LSU did as the Tigers scored three runs in the second and third innings. Sean McMullen's RBI-ground out in the third made it 5-4 and chased SHSU started Caleb Smith from the game.
Bearkat closer Jason Simms entered and didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning. He came out after hitting a batter with one out in the seventh, but held LSU scoreless for 3 2/3 innings with three strikeouts.
"It was a courageous move by [SHSU coach] David Pierce to bring in his closer in the third inning," Mainieri said. "The kid did a great job. He threw across his body and it was giving our right-handed hitters a tough time."
Alan Scott followed Simms to complete the seventh inning before disaster eventually struck in the eighth. SHSU needed three pitchers to get through that inning as the Bearkats' lead dwindled then disappeared.
After LSU's four-run outburst in the eighth, closer Chris Cotton relieved Nola and completed the two-inning save — his 16th of the season, matching Matty Ott's school record.
"It's an honor to be holding a record here at LSU," Cotton said. "It's the most prestigious baseball school in the world, and it's just really an honor. I was able to throw strikes, stay ahead and my defense backed me up."
The win puts LSU in the regional driver's seat, needing only one win to advance to the next round of the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers will square off with the winner of Sunday's elimination game between Louisiana-Lafayette and SHSU. That game will start at 2 p.m., and LSU will take the field at 7 p.m.
"That's what you play for around here," Mainieri said. "It's all about championships for LSU. We've got two in the bag [the SEC Western Division and SEC Tournament] and now we have a chance to advance. It never gets old."
For more on Saturday's win, check out the postegame notebook, including information on an injury to Sean McMullen and LSU's pitching plan moving forward.
NOTES: McMullen injured, pitching plan
LSU one win from Super Regional
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