No. 2 ranked LSU (47-17-1) scored five runs in the ninth inning to complete their stunning, game-winning rally that saw the Tigers charge back to erase a 7-1 deficit after four innings.
The victory allowed LSU to even the best-of-three series and the Tigers will face the Anteaters for a third and final time at 6 p.m. Monday night for the right to gain a College World Series berth at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska.
The contest will mark the final game in 71 years of play for LSU in the current Alex Box Stadium before its move to a new facility for the 2009 season.
“I don’t care how much people kick and scream this is it - last game,” Mainieri said. “We’re not coming back for anymore ball games. It’ll be a sad game win or lose to say goodbye to this stadium. We’ve been trying to say goodbye to it for a few weeks now. It just doesn’t want to go away.
Anteaters starting pitcher Daniel Bibona (9-3) scattered nine hits in allowing the Tigers three runs through seven and one-third innings and striking out eight.
Undaunted, LSU begin staging its dramatic comeback by scoring two runs in the eighth inning to cut the deficit to 7-4.
Jared Mitchell got the Tigers going by delivering a leadoff, solo homerun that chased Bibona from the mound. Blake Dean walked against UCI reliever Tom Calahan and later scored on Matt Clark’s single to right field off Eric Pettis, the second Anteaters reliever and closer.
“Leading off the inning I wanted to get on base some kind of way,” Mitchell said. “I knew that we weren’t going to get everything back at once, but wanted to give ourselves a chance. It got down two strikes and I told myself to stay inside the baseball and try to go the other way. I hit the ball the other way and it carried out of the park.”
Leon Landry ignited the Tigers’ game-winning rally by opening the ninth with a walk. He advanced to third base on Ryan Schimpf’s double down the line in right. Michael Hollander’s single to shortstop loaded the bases and Mitchell walked, bringing home Landry to cut the UCI lead to 7-5.
Dean then singled to right, scoring Schimpf to bring LSU within 7-6 and Mitchell scored to tie the game at 7-7 on Sean Ochinko’s single to left.
The Tigers then gained the lead, 8-7 when Pontiff scored on a walk to Clark and gained their final margin of 9-7 when Dean scored on D.J. LeMahieu’s sacrifice fly.
“It’s close when you think what was at stake,” Mainieri said. “This comeback is remarkable. One of these times I’m not going to say I’m shocked, because these kids of ours seem to do it every time. It’s one for the ages and one I’ll remember no matter what happens in the future.
“Our kids don’t know how to qui,” Mainieri added. “One guy after the other kept holding onto the rope. It was an amazing thing where it was one big bat after another. Everybody in the dugout believed that we could do it and we did. It was a courageous win for our team, but a tough loss for an outstanding Irvine team. They play their game as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. Every player in their lineup knows his role and does his job well.”
Tiger relief pitcher Louis Coleman (7-0) shutout UCI on one hit through the final three innings after coming on in relief of starter Jared Bradford (10-4) to start the seventh.
“I didn’t mind coming in to pitch in seventh,” Coleman said. “I knew that our guys could swing the bat and we were still in the game. We were still in the ball game and just a few hits away. I respect coach’s (Mainieri) decision because Jared has shown to be our most consistent and best pitcher the last two years. I thought it was a great move.
“We know that we can count on each other to do whatever is needed to give ourselves a chance to win,” Coleman went on to say. “The saying we have in our locker room is refuse to lose. We go all out and everyone believes in everyone from one to nine. I came in when we were down 7-2 and stayed down in the zone with my pitches. The sinker pitch worked well and I tried to get some ground balls hit. The guys made great plays behind me. Pitchers count on the hitters to come through and the defense to make plays. The hitters count on pitchers to throw well.”
Coleman shut the Anteaters down after giving up a double to pinch-hitter Ryan Fisher with one out in the ninth.
“There are not enough superlatives I can give to Coleman,” Mainieri said. “What he’s done for our team over the last half to two thirds of the season is absolutely remarkable. That’s the reason why I thought I could start Bradford. I knew that I’d have Louis at the end. I almost put him in early, but Jared gutted it out and gave us two more good innings.”
UCI erupted for six runs in the fourth off Bradford to erase a 2-1 deficit and take a 7-2 advantage.
Brook Bardeen’s leadoff, solo home run sparked the Anteaters rally along with a two-run single by Aaron Lowenstein, and run-scoring singles from Ollie Linton, Ben Orloff, and Eric Deragisch.
“They (Irvine) executed well offensively in that inning,” Mainieri said. “It wasn’t what Jared was doing as much as how well they did in playing their type game. I didn’t think that Jared had lost it and asked him how he felt after coming off the field. He said that he felt fine, except for getting a couple of pitches up.
“There are not many pitchers I’d leave in the game after they gave up seven runs. I would’ve taken most pitchers out long before that. He worked hard to give us another couple of strong innings. I wanted Louis to be strong and he had a lot of gas when we brought him in. I hoped that we could somehow rally offensively to comeback.”
The Tiger defense contributed solid play again as Mitchell and Landry made clutch catches in the outfield. The LSU infield turned a crucial double play to end the UCI fourth inning scoring run.
“Leon and I talked about making sure that we cover each other’s back,” Mitchell said. “Let’s go all out and make sure we catch everything that’s hit hard out there. On my catch in right I went all out and told myself that there was no way the ball would not get caught by me.”
Mainieri cited the stellar defensive plays as being crucial for the Tigers to win.
“My attitude is that they ought to be making those catches,” Mainieri said. “They’re probably the two best athletes playing the outfield in college baseball.”
Mitchell had three hits to lead a 14-hit LSU attack that included two hits each from Dean, Clark, LeMahieu, and Schimpf.
”I know that it sounds like a broken record, but we’re a team of 25 players,” Mainieri said. “Everyone knows that they are a vital part of this team and that is what makes it special. Everyone contributing something is what helps us to be successful. That’s been he case for us, offensively, pitching and on defense.”
UCI catcher Lowenstein had two hits to lead the Anteaters’ 11-hit attack. He also contributed defensively throwing out two Tiger base runners and tagging another out at home.
“Hats off to LSU,” UCI coach Mike Gillespie said. “They exploited and took advantage of the opportunities that they got the last couple of innings. They got the clutch base hits when they needed them and received outstanding relief pitching.
“I thought that Danny (Bibona) gave us another solid pitching effort and we hit the ball well. We did so especially in the fourth to get the lead. We executed well and did a lot of good things, but in the end it was LSU that won.”