OMAHA, Neb. – The game giveth, the game taketh away. Three days after utter baseball jubilation, LSU players were using their jerseys to wipe away the tears.
One giant swing put to bed the Tigers’ season in a baseball game that was as bizarre as it was full of heartache to those in purple and gold.
North Carolina catcher Tim Federowicz earned the tag of hero for the game, his ninth-inning grand slam to left giving the Tar Heels a 7-3 win Friday night at the College World Series.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s voice cracked with emotion as he tried to explain his feelings minutes after it was over.
“My most overwhelming emotion is I hurt very badly for my kids,” Mainieri said. “I guess you could say we ran out of miracles.”
LSU (49-19-1) had come back to win 30 games this season and it looked like the Tigers might do it again Friday, a two-run homer by Matt Clark in the seventh tying the game at 3 in the sixth. A win and LSU would be among the final four of college baseball, playing again on Saturday against Fresno State.
But Clark's blast was about as much offense as you were going to find out of the Tigers, who managed just four hits against five North Carolina pitchers.
“I don’t know when the last time we only had four hits in a ballgame was,” Mainieri said.
The coach would certainly have trouble recalling many contests like this one, which ended more than 28 hours after the first pitch was thrown.
The game started shortly after 6 p.m. on Thursday and ended 30 minutes after 10 p.m. on Friday: rain, lightning and thunder disrupting it twice, an eighth-inning streaker momentarily delaying it another time.
The Tigers had gone to sleep Thursday night not feeling too hot about matters.
LSU’s Blake Martin started the game pitching, but struggled mightily, only getting one out in the top of the first and giving up two runs. When the rain came with the bases loaded, it seemed a blessing of sorts for the Tigers.
The game was delayed for more than 3 hours before officials finally told everyone they could go home for the night. The game would resume Friday night.
“It will be a long night for us with the bases loaded and one out and in a 2-0 hole,” Mainieri told reporters Thursday night. “It was a rough night for us.”
But as has been their specialty, the Tigers regrouped.
They had an ace up their sleeves, bringing to the mound Jared Bradford when the game resumed on Friday. Bradford was very good, “the stuff of legend,” if you ask Mainieri.
Bradford had thrown 106 pitches on Tuesday in the drama-filled 6-5 win over Rice. You would have never known his arm had been so well-used by watching him Friday. On two-day’s rest, he gave up just four hits and one run in 5.2 innings against the Tar Heels.
There was no bigger moment than the sequence that started Friday’s action.
Coming into the bases-loaded situation, the right-hander provoked a double-play grounder to third off the bat of Garrett Gore.
The Tigers exploded off the bench and rushed to greet Bradford. It had looked quite possible that North Carolina might have four or five runs before LSU even got a chance to bat. Instead, it was just 2-0 and LSU was feeling just fine about that.
The game got to the top of the third before another weather delay stopped action for 87 minutes. It’s worth noting it was perfectly sunny all of Friday afternoon in Omaha, the idea to wait to play the game until 6 seeming less than the brainiest of moves as a deluge made fans scatter for shelter.
The game finally resumed and Carolina pitchers ruled. The pitching was so solid that North Carolina coach Mike Fox opened afterward: “It would have been kind of a shame if we lost.”
Clark said UNC pitchers had Tigers’ hitters off-balance throughout the CWS. North Carolina defeated LSU 8-4 on Sunday night to put the Tigers in the losers’ bracket.
“You just tip your hat off to them,” said Clark, whose home run gave him a nation-leading 28. “They threw the ball well all season. It’s not going to change come the College World Series.”
But the Tar Heels weren’t exactly knocking base hits left and right, either. UNC ended the game with just nine hits, and only had seven before the ninth.
The top of the ninth started harmlessly enough, a groundout to short. But then nine-hole hitter Ryan Graepel hit a double to the gap off Louis Coleman, who had previously looked dominant.
Coleman then walked Dustin Ackley and unloaded a wild pitch that put runners on second and third. Mainieri elected to have Coleman pitch to pinch-hitter Mark Fleury and it proved a smart move. A strikeout was had and that gave LSU two outs.
Mainieri then ordered Coleman to intentionally walk UNC’s No. 3 hitter – Tim Fedroff, who has a .401 average on the season – so that he could pitch to Federowicz, who has a .307 average.
“I think if I had to do it over 1,000 times, I’d do the same thing,” Mainieri said. “It just didn’t work out for us.”
Coleman threw Federowicz – “kind of a big teddy bear,” according to his coach – a 1-1 slider that got belted deep into the left-field stands, a no-doubter from the moment it left the bat.
“I knew he was going to bring the slider and I was able to catch a bad one,” Federowicz said.
Tiger Magic had finally run out.
“When we look back at this season, we’re going to look at it with very fond memories,” Mainieri said. “But right now it hurts.”