As Paul Mainieri sat down alongside his players at Saturday’s post-game press conference, smiles could be seen across the table of yellow-clad jerseys.
Opposite the Tiger skipper sat Anthony Ranaudo – sporting a bag of ice across his right arm and a grin from ear-to-ear.
The sophomore – who hurled nine innings of three-hit, two-run ball for the win – then earned the first, and most important, words from his headman.
“Anthony was the story of the game, period,” Mainieri said.
After Ranaudo went nine innings and struck out 14, no other story line seemed to fit.
“With everything at stake, he was unbelievably courageous,” Mainieri said. “He made all the big pitches, and it would have been a shame had we not pulled it out with that kind of performance.”
The performance - for the unfortunate Tiger fans not tuned in - was one built on grit and determination.
With the Tigers’ lone run support for the right-hander coming in the second and fourth innings, Ranaudo fired five scoreless frames to open the contest – striking out eight in the process.
At the plate, Jared Mitchell - who worked the Bears to a full count in three of his plate appearances - homered in the second to put the game’s opening run on the board.
“I try to work early in the count if I get pitches I can really handle,” he said. “If not, I am not going to chase pitches but find ways on. My approach is finding a way on at any cost and to try to hit the pitches that you can handle in the strike zone.”
Two innings later, the Tigers coupled two hits with a walk to bring Micah Gibbs across the plate – moving out front 2-0.
The Bears, however, found life in the sixth – smacking a solo home run to right on a 2-1 pitch from Ranaudo.
After he retired the side on strikeouts in the seventh, the LSU right-hander found himself in a jam in the eighth.
Ranaudo walked a pair of batters to put runners on with two outs before freshman third baseman Tyler Hanover bobbled a possible inning-ending ground out to third – allowing Brooks Pinckard to score to bring the game to 2-2.
Yet, when Ranaudo took to the dugout in the middle of eighth, the LSU bullpen remained a ghost town.
“Anthony came in after the inning and was pretty frustrated, throwing his glove down and stuff like that,” Gibbs said. “His pitch count was still low, so I told him to just stay focused and get back out there and help us win the game.”
Ranaudo did just that – retiring the side on strikeouts for the second time in three frames.
“I felt better in the ninth than I did in the first,” he said. “For some reason, that’s the way I work. I felt towards the end of the game that I could put the ball in a teacup.”
Mainieri, who is often not short on words of praise for his players, was left speechless at the performance.
“I have never coached a kid who gets better as the game goes on like Anthony does,” he said. “He has done that several times this year, where he struggles and then finds a rhythm and gets in a groove.”
With the Alex Box crowd reaching a level of hysteria as the game turned to extra innings, the Tiger bats finally finished off what Ranaudo started.
After Mitchell and LeMahieu reached base on walks, freshman Austin Nola lined a pitch to center field for the go-ahead run.
The Tiger shortstop – who entered the contest batting just .230 – had come up in the clutch for the second day in a row.
“My confidence is getting better each time,” Nola said. “I’m seeing a few more pitches and working the count in deep. Sometimes I tend to get out early, but lately I’ve been getting good pitches to hit and everything’s going well.”
When the bottom of the tenth rolled around, confidence in the Tiger dugout appeared to be at an all-time high.
Matty Ott – who set an LSU record with his 15th save on the year – retired the side in order, giving Ranaudo his ninth win on the season and stamping the Tigers’ ticket to Sunday’s title game.
“Matty is unbelievable,” Mainieri said. “The count can go to 3-1, and while 90-percent of pitchers will throw the fourth ball, he pounds the zone and gets the guy out. He has unbelievable poise and command out there.
“I don’t know where we would be without him.”
Where they are with him, of course, is into Sunday’s 6 p.m. contest against the winner of Minnesota and Baylor’s 1 p.m. contest. Mainieri said that Louis Coleman (11-2, 2.84 ERA) will get the start for the Tigers.