Terrill Weil

Clash of titans: LSU takes on Oregon State in the second round of the CWS

After comeback win Saturday, the No. 2 Tigers slide into a rare role as underdogs against the No. 1-ranked Beavers

OMAHA, Neb. -- Relief and celebration are pretty important elements of athletics, especially when a season has reached the pinnacle.

So for LSU and Oregon State, the last 24 hours-plus was a chance to bask in some friendly Midwestern glow.

There is also this: Now the Tigers (49-17) and Beavers (55-4) had to mentally switch gears and think about the challenge they face against each other.

Two of college baseball’s elite collide in a second-round winners’ game of the 2017 College World Series at 6 p.m. Monday at TD Ameritrade Park.

Not only are the two Goliaths squaring off in a driver’s-seat game, but LSU brings a 17-game winning streak to the table – the second longest currently to Oregon State’s mind-boggling 22 victories in a row. 

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Both teams extended those streaks with dramatic come-from-behind wins on Saturday in the first round: OSU erased 3-0 and 5-1 deficits to clip Cal State Fullerton 6-5 and the Tigers staged an unlikely 8th-inning rally to top Florida State 5-4.

Which was cause for plenty of euphoria that out of necessity morphed into get-down-to-business work on Sunday.

“It's going to be a great match-up,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We get to play Oregon State, the No. 1 team in the country, and  deservedly so. 

“They lost four games, so they're beatable, right. So you're saying, we have a chance?”

Mainieri was smiling as he uttered the final words, a confident coach of a confident team that will have a shot to win any game that lies ahead at college baseball’s mecca. 

As Mainieri and his players spoke about the Beavers, there was a healthy reverence for a team that has produced one of the most dominant seasons in college baseball history.

Words like awesome, incomprehensible and stupid – the good kind, of course – were tossed around.

While the Tigers might be in the rare role of underdog against the top-ranked Beavers, convincing the opposing coach that LSU is in at any kind of disadvantage is wasted time.

Like most college coaches with a chance to finish on top of the mountain, OSU’s Pat Casey watches teams around the country as the season unfolds. Casey saw enough of the Tigers that they struck a mental bookmark in his mind.

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“They're just so athletic,” Casey said to reporters covering OSU on Monday. “They’re as talented as anybody in the (CWS) that I've seen, and I've seen them play a bunch.”

Meanwhile, Oregon State has simply won a bunch. 

Several times on Monday Mainieri shook his head in disbelief as he referred to the Beavers’ gaudy record this season.

If OSU extends its winning streak to 23, it would mark the second time this season that has been achieved. The Beavers had not trailed in the NCAA Tournament until Fullerton grabbed a 3-0 1st-inning advantage on Saturday. 

“It looks like a typo when you see they just have four losses, especially since they play in the Pac-12,” LSU senior Kramer Robertson said. “They're a very, very good team. But so are we.”

So who blinks? Where can either team find a crack? That’s a tough riddle to solve.

Both will go with pitchers have been in the No. 3 role most of the season, but LSU’s Eric Walker and Bryce Fehmel from Oregon State have emerged the last few weeks.

Fehmel struck out 10 in a complete-game 9-2 win over Vanderbilt to sew up the Super Regional for the Beavers on June 10.

Walker has taken the mound in two of the Tigers’ championship-clinching wins in the postseason and emerged the winner in both – the SEC Tournament and the regional final against Rice.

With senior Jared Poche scuffling a bit in his postseason outings, Mainieri was contemplating a shuffle that came to fruition with a slight delay.

There was some mild uncertainty about Walker’s availability after he had some forearm tightness last Tuesday after throwing in an intra-squad scrimmage. Mainieri was leaning toward the freshman stepping into the second-game start before the slight pause, so when Walker’s pain subsided, the decision was an easy one.

LSU pitcher Eric Walker (Photo: Terrill Weil)

True to the demeanor that has been typical all season, the young Texan seems totally unfazed by his next assignment, saying with a smile Sunday that he thought he would sleep well that night.

“Mentally and physically, I feel like I’m prepared,” he said.

“We’re still just trying to win a game. Every team in Omaha is great. Oregon State might be the best team we’ve faced, so they present a different challenge. 

Walker’s style – specifically his penchant for jumping ahead of hitters and throwing strikes – certainly matches well with that approach.

In 93.2 innings this season, Walker has walked only 23 batters. The Beavers average 4.8 free passes taken a game and the comeback triumph over CSF was constructed out of patience when Oregon State drew four walks in the 6th inning to push home four runs and draw even, 5-5.

“I know they have some power and I know they’re patient,” Walker said. “That’s the way they came back in that game.

“I’m just going to approach it with the mindset of not being afraid to fail. My approach is to just throw strikes. You’ve got to make them beat you and not beat yourself. If they can’t walk, they can’t get on base unless they’re getting hits.” 

The Beavers figure to get a few of those. 

OSU peppered Fullerton for 11 hits on Saturday – seven from three of its biggest run-producers. Jack Anderson was 3-for-3 with the game-tying RBI, Trevor Larnach was 2-for-5 and got OSU close with a key two-run base knock and Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Madrigal went 2-for-4 with a sacrifice fly.

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So at some point Monday, with what is expected to be a large and loud crowd in full throat, Walker will find himself in a moment unlike any he has on the baseball diamond. How he navigates whatever choppy waters stir up could have a large impact on how the Tigers fare.

It helps that the former Texas schoolboy quarterback played in front of sizable crowds when he was at Arlington Martin in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

A large part of how Walker has performed this season, is just who he is, though.

“He just has this clean composure,” Tigers’ catcher Michael Papierski said. “He goes out there and nothing really fazes him. Whether he gives up a double or strikes out the side, nothing really changes.

“You don’t have to say much to that dude because he’s always so calm. Every time I go out there he’s like ‘Pap, I’ve got this. I’m going to get a ground ball right here.’ He’s always thinking positive.”

With a CWS opening win under their belts for the first time since 2009, that’s how all of the Tigers are operating right now. 

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