OMAHA, Neb. – As the tension mounted and the L-S-U chant grew in volume, Paul Mainieri looked out beyond the fence in center field. He was looking at the American flag flapping in the breeze.
Tigers coach smiled. He tapped his son, sitting by his side in the dugout, telling him: “The wind just picked up. It’s blowing out to left. Is there any way one of these next two guys is going to get the ball up in the air?”
Um, yeah, there’s a way. Two batters later, Blake Dean took a 1-0 pitch and ripped it to left field, over the outfielder’s head, off the wall, into LSU baseball lore.
“When I saw it hit the wall, all I did was shift my eyes to Jared Mitchell and all I could see was a blur going around the bases,” Mainieri said. “I think if (third-base coach) Cliff (Godwin) had tried to hold him up, he would have run through him like a defensive back at Alabama.”
Dean’s clutch ninth-inning hit brought home three runs, Mitchell scoring the winning run all the way from first, completing an epic rally for LSU's 6-5 win over Rice Tuesday at the College World Series.
On the other side, 72-year-old coach Wayne Graham walked slowly from the dugout as LSU players piled on top of Dean around second base. The old coach did his best to console the gray-shirted young men around him.
“That’s the way the game is,” Graham said. “You just take the good and the bad and you love it. And sometimes it loves you back.”
Rice became the second team to be knocked out of this year’s CWS, joining Florida State. For most of the afternoon, it looked like it would be the Tigers taking the early flight home.
LSU was struggling to find any offense, falling behind 5-0 as Rice pitchers Chris Kelley and Cole St. Clair had their ways with Tiger hitters.
At times, Mainieri said it almost felt as if his team was down 15 runs. LSU could muster just four hits against Kelley through 5.2 innings and had just two against St. Clair going into the ninth.
But LSU pitching was solid enough to keep the game within reach. Starter Jared Bradford led the way, making it through 6.2 innings, allowing seven hits and five runs.
The Tigers started to chip at the lead in the bottom of the seventh, with Nick Pontiff coming off the bench and getting a hit. He’d eventually score on a balk call against St. Clair.
LSU inched closer yet in the eighth, making it 5-2 on an RBI double by Micah Gibbs down the right-field line. Another run seemed on the way when D.J. LeMahieu roped a single to right. Gibbs tried to score from second, but the throw was on target and Rice catcher Adam Zornes had the plate well-blocked.
Zornes dropped the ball on the initial tag of Gibbs, but picked it up and tagged Gibbs again before he could crawl over the catcher to touch home plate.
“You start thinking, ‘Well, maybe we’ve run out of our good fortune for the year,’” Mainieri said.
The other side’s perspective: “In my mind, it definitely gave you the sense we were going to win the game,” Zornes said.
But the Tigers, comeback kids throughout the season, had other plans. After all, LSU had rallied to stave off elimination a week-and-a-half ago, coming back from a three-run deficit in the final inning to beat Cal-Irvine in Game 2 of the super regional.
“They never lose heart because they’ve (come back) so much,” Graham said. “It’s remarkable.”
The Tigers started the ninth with an out, but then Derek Helenihi delivered a single, his hit bouncing off the glove of the Rice second baseman and into the outfield. Sean Ochinko, pinch-hitting, came up next and got hit by a pitch. Michael Hollander then poked an RBI single up the middle.
It was now a 5-3 game with runners at first and third, the game-winning run at the plate.
Mitchell hit a ball at the shortstop. It would have been a tough play to turn two, but it should have at least been the second out against LSU. Instead, Owls shortstop Rick Hague juggled the ball. Everyone was safe.
Up came Dean. An inning earlier, St. Clair had struck out the LSU designated hitter. “He pretty much just owned me,” Dean said.
This time, it was Dean who did the owning, taking a fastball and driving it. Dean said he knew it wasn’t leaving the ballpark when he hit it, but he did know it was over the outfielder’s head. The Rice outfielder, Aaron Luna, didn't play the carom off the wall well, the ball bounding far away from him while LSU runners scampered across the base paths.
On his way to second, Dean looked to see that Mitchell was flying around third, arms raised to the air in victory.
“Honestly, I don’t really think these guys know what quit means,” Mitchell said of team.
LSU will now face the loser of North Carolina/Fresno State on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Talk of that game can wait. Tuesday was about celebrating what Mainieri called a “monumental win.”
The victory ended a streak of five straight losses for the Tigers at the CWS. It also brought back fond memories to Mainieri of a game six years ago.
In 2002, coaching for Notre Dame then, Mainieri’s team came into the final inning of a CWS elimination game trailing Rice by a run. But the Irish rallied, tying the game, then winning it on a two-run homer.
Six years later, another grand moment appeared. Yes, those Tigers are still breathing.
“I just can’t believe one person can be so blessed to experience something like this twice in a lifetime,” Mainieri said. “Just amazing.”