Down but never out is the motto

OMAHA, Neb. – OK, OK, the coach will admit it. After seeing his player get thrown out at the plate in the eighth inning Tuesday – his team's season once again three outs from ending – Paul Mainieri had a passing pessimistic thought.

Maybe our good fortunes have finally expired. As soon as that idea came to him, he felt guilty for even having it.

         

“I shouldn’t even have second thoughts about these guys,” Mainieri said. “They just keep doing it.”

         

Coming back is just sort of part of the deal for this LSU Tigers baseball team. They’ve now come back in 30 of their 49 wins this season, and twice within the past two weeks they have staved off elimination by rallying from three-run deficits in the ninth inning.

         

Cal-Irvine seemingly had them in the coffin in the super regional, leading the Tigers 7-4 in the last frame. LSU won 9-7. Then came Tuesday, where the Tigers rallied for four against Cole St. Clair, one of the best pitchers in the college game, to beat Rice 6-5.

         

They’ve come back in games; they’ve come back on this season. Just recall how things were looking for this bunch when they lost four of their first six SEC series. All they did then was roll off 23 straight wins, 17 of those games won only after first falling behind.

 

Now, they’re one of the final six teams playing college baseball, a showdown with North Carolina set for Thursday at 7 p.m.

         

“We all hold each other accountable,” third baseman LSU Michael Hollander said. “Everybody relies on everybody else and everybody does their job. We’re truly a team. Everybody believes, even the guys on the bench think we’re going to come back … Even when we lost a couple days ago, we believed we were going to win up to the last out.”

         

The thing that pleases Mainieri so much is that many names seem to have a role in these comebacks, not just the headliners. When Nicholas Pontiff was inserted into the game Tuesday, he laced a seventh-inning hit and got around to score LSU’s first run, helping set the table for a ninth-inning comeback

         

And in the ninth, Mainieri had no reservations sending Sean Ochinko up as a pinch-hitter. Ochinko made it to first after getting hit by a pitch. It wasn’t exactly a SportsCenter highlight, no, but just Mainieri’s willingness to call on his bench in that situation showed plenty.

         

“It’s an unbelievable feeling when you’ve got guys throughout that bench and everyone on that field believing you can do it,” said left fielder Jared Mitchell, the man who crossed home for the game-winning run on Tuesday.

         

Their belief was put to the strongest test Tuesday, especially in the eighth inning when Micah Gibbs was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second on a base hit to right field.

         

That kept the score at 5-2 and thwarted the tying run from coming to plate in the inning.

 

“It was kind of a punch in our face, it knocked us back,” designated hitter Blake Dean said.

         

LSU looked like it was toast and even the great Skip himself seemed unsure that there was any Tiger magic around the corner.

 

After a seventh inning where two Tigers were left stranded in scoring position, the LSU athletic director and former legendary baseball coach Skip Bertman walked through the press box, wearing a grim look and shaking his head.  “Needed a big hit,” he said.

         

Of all people, Bertman should have known. This team was just waiting for the ninth to make its noise. Dean would provide the loudest noise with a bases-clearing double off the left-field wall to win the game.

         

“It’s gotten to the point where belief’s not the issue,” Dean said. “We know we’re going to do it.”

         

Now, what more can they do? That’s the question the bead-wearers dressed in purple and gold were posing over the tailgating pits after the win.

         

LSU (49-28-1) still has to win three games just to make it to the best-of-three championship series, and the first step requires the Tigers to beat North Carolina, one of the hot picks to win this tournament when it started.

         

UNC is full of players well-experienced in how to get through a CWS bracket. The past two years, the Tar Heels made it to the championship series.

         

All his team can worry about is Thursday night, Mainieri said. The road is too long to look at anything past that game.

 

But the coach did tell a room of reporters after Tuesday’s win that he feels like this team has something extra special in it.

         

Mainieri followed LSU’s national championship football team closely throughout the fall, taking close note of the Tigers’ chemistry. He sees some of those same ingredients in his baseball team.

         

He’s at least sure of one thing: His guys won’t quit until the final out in Omaha.

         

“I told the kids after the game, this is the great things about athletics,” Mainieri said. “It teaches us the lessons about life. No matter how down you are, no matter how hopeless things seem, that if you just never give up and never quit believing in themselves, anything is possible.”

 


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