BATON ROUGE – Putting together another splendid, collective performance of timely hitting, clutch pitching, and solid defense helped make the winning difference for the host Tigers in capturing an 11-4 NCAA Regional Baseball Tournament over Southern Mississippi at LSU’s Alex Box Stadium.
The superb, overall effort enabled No. 2 ranked LSU to extend its nation best, all-time school, and Southeastern Conference record winning streak to 23 games.
The Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, designated hitter, Blake Dean delivered a three-run triple to help spark a six-run, sixth-inning, scoring blitz that enabled LSU (46-16-1) to charge to a commanding, 9-2 advantage.
Michael Hollander contributed a run-scoring single and Matt Clark a run-scoring double to give the Tigers the break away after the Golden Eagles of Conference USA (CUSA) (42-22) had closed to 3-2 in the fifth inning.
Relief pitcher Paul Bertuccini (2-0) came on to thwart any further Southern Mississippi scoring by recording an inning-ending strike out. He registered three more strikeouts in the sixth before giving way to Jared Bradford, who pitched the final three frames.
“I’ve been waiting to say this all-day – We won this one for the Skipper,” said Tiger coach Paul Mainieri, quickly adding, “How’s that.”
Bertman guided the Tigers to five College World Series title (1991, ‘93, ’96, ’97, and ‘2000) as coach before becoming Athletic Director in ’01. He is recovering after being hospitalized following an apparent heart attack suffered on Saturday.
“Obviously my thoughts all day were with Skip as he recovers from his heart attack suffered yesterday. I hope this gave him a little bit of joy and maybe helps his recovery.”
“I’m so proud of my kids,” Mainieri continued. “They’ve responded to every challenge that has come their way. Somebody told me that we broke the SEC record for consecutive games won. How many years have they been playing baseball in the SEC? (75). Winning 23 in a row is an amazing accomplishment by a great group of kids. To do it at this time of the season against the schedule of teams we’ve faced is beyond explanation.”
“Winning 23 games last year was gratifying because I felt that our kids over achieved. We laid the groundwork for what we’re experiencing this year. It’s to the credit of kids like Hollander, Dean, and Bertuccini that bought into and believed in what we were trying to do as a coaching staff. They became true leaders for us and we were fortunate to add some players that were able to contribute something in their own way. We’re now able to taste the fruits of victory and they taste mighty, sweet.”
LSU jumped out to a 1-0 advantage when Dean doubled to left field and scored on Micah Gibbs’ double to left in the first inning.
The Tigers increased their lead to 3-0 when Leon Landry drove a two-run home run to left following a double from D.J. LeMahieu in the second.
Undaunted, Southern Mississippi battled back to cut the deficit to 3-2 by scoring single runs with the aid of singles from Drew Carson in the fourth and fifth.
But that was as close as the Golden Eagles would get to the Tigers.
Dean, Hollander, and Clark provided the offensive firepower to enable LSU to score six runs in the sixth and take command, 9-2.
Dean delivered his clutch, two-run triple off Golden Eagles’ relief pitcher Collin Cargill and he had a good scouting report on the USM hurler.
“The coaches told me that the guy, was a lefty (Cargill) with a good change-up,” Dean said. “So I was sitting for an off-speed pitch. I took the first pitch, a fastball and he came back to throw another change-up. I took that pitch and thought that he’d come with it again, but he threw a fastball. I had been ready for them all weekend and was able to drive it hard for a big hit.”
Bertuccini came in relief of starter Blake Martin for LSU and he ended the Southern Mississippi threat in the fifth on a strike out of Carson.
“Paul getting us out of problems in the fifth and then doing well in the sixth was huge,” Mainieri said. It was important because I didn’t think that Martin (Blake) pitched his best game, just as I didn’t think that Ryan Verdugo did on Saturday. Both will have to be a lot better for us next weekend. But, both did a good job of making the pitches needed to get themselves out of trouble.
“We talk about being able to do that a lot. It’s important to hold the other team to single runs. Doing so lets our offense come back. You don’t want to let the other team have the big inning like we put together in the sixth.”
Bertuccini retired the Golden Eagles’ in order on strikeouts in the sixth before giving way to Bradford.
Southern Mississippi cut the deficit to 9-3 behind successive single from Brian Dozier and James Ewing in the seventh. But, LSU came back with two runs of its own in the bottom of the seventh to take an 11-3 advantage.
The Golden Eagles scored to make it 11-4 in the ninth before Bradford closed out the game for the Tigers.
LSU’s victory continues the Tigers’ amazing turnaround from just over a month ago when at 23-16-1 they were on the verge of not making the SEC Tournament.
“I’m very proud of my kids,” Mainieri said. “They find ways to win by doing whatever it takes to get the job done. We started off a little slow, before Leon’s (Landry) homer got us the lead early. We got a little stagnant for a few innings before getting the big sixth inning and that is that.
“I’m going to bed tonight (Sunday) thinking of Blake (Dean) swinging on that 0-2 pitch with the bases loaded. That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
The victory advances the Tigers into a best-of-three-game Super Regional Tournament set to start either next Friday or Saturday at Alex Box Stadium against the University of California-Irvine.
Mainieri will work on getting his team ready for the showdown but for now he is enjoying the moment.
“This game has significance in a lot of ways, but most of all because we won the regional championship and now advance to the next round,” Mainieri said. “UC-Irvine won the regional up in Nebraska (Lincoln). We know that will be a tremendous challenge and one that we relish and embrace. But for tonight we’re going to enjoy this victory and championship.
South Carolina had the previous SEC best winning streak of 22 and LSU’s previous longest winning streak was 19 games (1997).
The Tigers are unbeaten in 24 consecutive games going back to a series-ending tie in a game against Georgia earlier before starting their current streak.
LSU, winner of its first regional tournament since 2004 will be making its first Super Regional appearance since the same year. The Tigers lost in their last regional appearance in ’05 after having regional and super regional tournaments and advancing to the College World Series in ’04.
The actual attendance at Alex Box Stadium Sunday night was 7,161.
LSU is in NCAA tournament action for the 23rd time in the school’s history. The Tigers are in super regional play for the seventh time and hope to make their 14th College World Series appearance.