Familiar faces

The dramatics between LSU and Rice in Omaha on June 16, 2008 has since become engrained into the memories of both sides. A year later, with a ticket for one to the College World Series hanging in the balance, familiar faces will clash once more.

The scene has been well documented.

The Tigers entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 5-2.

It was a spot they had been in before - 29 times, to be specific. When Blake Dean doubled the game winner of the wall in left, LSU had registered their 30th come from behind victory on the season.

“I could not imagine we could have been any hotter,” Dean said.

Yet, here they are again – with three more wins to their credit than at this juncture in 2008.

All things considered, perhaps nobody – at least in navy and white - is happier to welcome the challenge than Rice starting pitcher Mike Ojala.

Last June, the junior stood in the dugout as Cole St. Clair absorbed the brunt of the late-inning beating – allowing six runs, four earned, on seven hits in 2.2 innings of work.

Hopelessness, an emotion shared by the rest of the Owls, was all that was felt.

“It was heartbreaking,” Ojala said. “We had the floor ripped out from under us.”

Outside of the end of their season, the Owls’ early return home left Ojala’s Rosenblatt voyage with much to be desired.

“I was slotted to pitch the next game, and I was pumped up like you would not believe,” he said. “It was tough, because I never got to make my mark on the big stage.”

Needless to say, the 2009 season served as his shot at redemption.

Going 5-0 with a team-best 1.73 ERA, it appears the right-hander made the most of it.

“I played with a chip on my shoulder because of what LSU did to us, and I think we all did,” Ojala said. “We wanted to get back at it right away.”

Who better to get back at it against, of course, than the Bayou Bengals?

“I can’t think of anyone we would rather play,” Ojala said with a smile. “There is nobody better to get another shot at than the team that knocked you out.”

His reasoning falls in line with any competitors.

Even Ryan Schimpf, who was struck out by St. Clair in the seventh before being pinch-hit for in the ninth, looked back on the winning moment with a bit of want.

“[St. Clair] dotted me up,” he said with a smile. “I sure wish he was coming to town this weekend.”

While St. Clair moved on to the MLB as a seventh round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Owls head coach moved on as well – acquiring a local Houston talent named Taylor Wall to fill the void in the weekend staff.

Running out to a 7-5 record and a 3.45 ERA during his freshman campaign, the missing piece of the puzzle seemed to fit.

Watching the two sides previous meeting as a fan, said Wall, helped take the “redemption” mentality – and any pressures that come with it – out of the picture.

“This is a fresh start for me,” he said. “I was not a part of anything before this season, and I like that.”

Slated to go on Sunday, if the series makes it to three games, Wall said that he is ready to carry his team down the home stretch.

His confidence, looking at the past weekend, seems warranted.

Last Sunday, the freshman fired a complete game, three-hit shutout to push the Owls into their Regional Championship game.

“Facing elimination against Kansas State and pitching the way I did, I have a lot of confidence headed into the weekend,” Wall said. “This weekend would have been my biggest pressure moment, but to have that [Kansas State] game under my belt was huge.”

Hitting .315 as a team – with proven late-game run power in their arsenal – the Owl staff knows one thing will be for certain.

“With those bats, it is going to be a lot of fun,” Ojala said. “Their hitting shows that they are a great ball club, and their pitching only adds to that.

“I don’t know if our rotation has faced an opposing three-man group like this, so it will be quite a challenge.”

Wall, the lone southpaw in the weekend rotation, offered his best cliff notes on how to take to LSU when the bats come alive.

“We are going to try to keep the ball down and attack the hitters as much as possible,” he said. “I am a guy who relies on pitching backwards, so hitting my spots and mixing up speed will be crucial.”

Ojala – the same ace that sat stranded in the Owls dugout in Omaha last June – shared his shortened version of the weekend game plan.

“With a team the caliber of LSU, you just get guys out any way that you can,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”

Despite rumors of Ojala battling a lingering right elbow, the junior is set to start Friday’s opener opposite LSU’s Anthony Ranaudo.

“I am at 100 percent,” he said.

Ryan Berry (7-1, 2.00 ERA) is slated for the Saturday start, with Wall penned in for Sunday’s game three (if necessary).

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