OMAHA, Neb. -- Speed kills. Luck is certainly welcome.
And apparently a beach ball can drive a stake through the heart of an underdog that is whisker-close to a College World Series victory.
LSU played from behind an 8-ball all night long against Florida State on Saturday night at TD Ameritrade Park, the residue of an early deficit and an ace who never seemed to get comfortable.
When a loss seemed inevitable, though, the Tigers conjured up the kind of magic they usually unearth at home. And a beach ball was quite possibly the inspiration on a night chick-full of weirdness.
Sparked by Cole Freeman’s stutter-stepped mad dash to the plate paved by three Seminole errors, Greg Deichmann’s clutch RBI single and gritty relief from Jared Poche and Zack Hess, LSU clawed past Florida State 5-4 with two unlikely 8th-inning runs.
The Tigers (49-17) move into a showdown against Oregon State (55-4), which staged its own rally to top Cal State Fullerton 6-5, at 6 p.m. Monday. FSU (45-22) takes on Cal State Fullerton (39-23) in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Monday.
Five outs away from a third consecutive opening CWS loss, LSU caught its first break of the 8th inning when Cole Freeman’s chopper back through the middle took a weird spin and ricocheted off FSU pitcher Tyler Holton’s glove for an infield single.
That play seemed pretty routinely tame a few minutes later.
With Antoine Duplantis in the batter’s box, a beach ball dropped into right field, causing a delay while FSU’s Steven Wells retrieved it and tossed it back up into the bleachers.
Unfortunately for Wells, his time in the spotlight was just beginning.
That decision looked ill-advised because Freeman appeared dead to rights, but catcher FSU Cal Raleigh mishandled the ball and Freeman slid in safely, with Duplantis running all along and reaching third base with one out.
One play, three errors and a game completely flipped on its head.
Seminoles’ coach Mike Martin pulled the infield in and summoned left-hander Alec Byrd to face Deichmann, the left-hand hitting slugger. Byrd jumped ahead 1-and-2 but Deichmann lashed a sharp ground ball past Dylan Busby at second base to chase Duplantis home with the go-ahead tally.
Until then, Deichmann was 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts vs. the left-handed Holton.
“I had to wipe the first three at-bats clean and focus on getting the job done,” Deichmann said. “Personally, I would have liked to hit a sac fly and make it easier, but you know that works, too.”
That’s been a big part of the Tigers’ late-season run and it was FSU that paid the price on Saturday.
“They took advantage of every opportunity that they had and took the game to us,” Martin said.
“We made mistakes and we paid for them.”
Poche, the Tigers’ No. 2 starter all season who moved into a relief role earlier in the week, took over for Alex Lange in the 7th inning with a runner on base and the pesky top of the Florida State batting order headed up.
The first out was huge because Poche retired Taylor Walls on a tricky grounder to short – the first time in 15 at-bats the Seminoles’ leadoff man didn’t reach safely. JC Flowers advanced to second on the play, but the Tigers didn’t flinch.
When Busby, who had staked FSU to a 2-0 lead with a 1st-inning home run, chopped out to third baseman Josh Smith, Flowers broke for third base and first baseman Nick Coomes’ peg across the diamond nailed him for an unorthodox 5-3-5 double play.
Florida State couldn’t solve Poche in a scoreless 8th inning and he got the first two outs of the 9th by striking out a pair of pinch-hitters after allowing a leadoff single to Matt Henderson.
With Henderson at second base after a third-strike wild pitch on the second strikeout, LSU coach Paul Mainieri lifted Poche for freshman Zack Hess to face Walls, who drew a walk.
Busby came up and struck out looking to nail down the Tigers’ 17th consecutive victory and the 38th of Poche’s career, which is tied for the most in program history.
“I think the key to the game was Poche coming in and taking control of the ballgame,” Mainieri said.
In two previous postseason starts, Poche couldn’t get past the 5th inning in games when LSU rallied for victories over Texas Southern and Mississippi State.
Now he shares a spot in the Tigers’ record book with Scott Schultz.
“It's unbelievable,” Poche said. “Just with all the great pitchers that have come through LSU for me to tie that record and put my name at the top of the list, it's something that's hard to describe. Obviously been thinking about it all year and been hoping that it would happen obviously the last two weeks. But I guess God had a better plan and wanted it to happen in Omaha. So I'm excited. Definitely didn't think it was going to happen with me coming out of the bullpen.”
Double plays kept the Tigers in range on a night when Alex Lange struggled to get ahead of hitters and allowed six of seven leadoff batters to reach base.
The first came right after Quincy Nieporte pushed a single just out of Robertson’s reach to score Walls for a 4-2 lead. The second ended the 6th. Those two twin-killings doubled the number the Tigers had recorded since May 12.
FSU jumped ahead 2-0 in the 1st inning when Lange walked Walls and Busby crushed a Lange pitch over the center-field fence for a 2-0 lead.
LSU answered in the bottom of the 1st inning with a strange run on a night characterized by them.
With two outs, Duplantis drew a full-count walk. Holton got ahead of Deichmann 0-and-2 and got him to chase a pitch away with a check swing, but the ball eluded Raleigh and rolled all the way back to the backstop near the Florida State dugout.
Duplantis took off on the pitch and never slowed down, sprinting home when no Seminole covered the plate. Raleigh got to the ball and might have still had time to gun Deichmann down, but he bobbled.
“I just kept looking up and things kept happening,” Duplantis said.
“It goes back to the type of athletes we have. We just keep putting pressure on the defense because we can run a little bit.”
After that, each club took turns with single-run answers:
- FSU went up 3-1 when Walls led off the 3rd with a double and scored on Busby’s smoked Lange’s first pitch through the middle for an RBI single.
- The Tigers got within 3-2 in the bottom of the inning when Freeman stole second with two outs and Duplantis punched a line drive over the infield to plate the run.
- Nieporte expanded the lead to 4-2 with his RBI single in the 5th.
- Mike Papierski answered by blasting Holton’s first offering of the bottom of that frame into the left-field seats for his 9th home run.
All of that was mundane in the long run.
Because a well-timed, misplaced beach ball, Florida State’s defense crumbling and gutsy relief from one savvy veteran and a freshman who is throwing like a grown man were all the crescendo the Tigers needed.
“At the end of the day we took advantage of a couple of missed plays by them, and it was a little bit of a bizarre game,” Mainieri said.