One win away from Omaha

The Super Regional title bout in Baton Rouge, tabbed as a heavyweight event by both sides, kicked off on Friday evening. Behind a red-hot sixth inning and the resilient arm of Anthony Ranaudo, round one went to LSU.

Anyone who glanced at Friday night’s lineup card figured one thing to be certain: the bats would likely be silenced.

LSU’s Anthony Ranaudo – who entered the night riding a 9-3 record and 3.09 ERA – had been the Tigers’ power arm all season, striking out a team-high 138 batters in 15 appearances.

For Rice head coach Wayne Graham, it was much of the same.

Junior Mike Ojala, who had not suffered a defeat in 12 appearances, took to the hill with a 1.73 ERA – the best of any Owl arm.

After both right-handers worked through their side in order in the first, the feeling that the night would turn into a pitching duel was heavy in the air.

Yet, there would be hurdles.

After giving up a double to lead off the second frame, the Tigers began to feel the bite of freshman inexperience.

Ranaudo, making a quick snag on a line drive back up the middle by Chad Mozingo, found the ball in his hand with Anthony Rendon stranded on the path between second and third.

Ranaudo made a few steps towards the Owl runner before tossing the ball to Nola – who began the run down. The chase would be short lived – and not in a good way.

Nola overthrew fellow freshman Tyler Hanover at third, sending the ball into the stands and the runner across the plate – putting Rice out front 1-0.

The bleeding from the blunder continued when Mozingo, who ended up at third courtesy of Nola’s overthrow, scored on a sacrifice fly to center field.

While Ranaudo found himself down a pair of runs, his performance had been stellar - allowing just one hit through the first eight Owl batters.

“I think it is a little natural to feel frustrated, so when guys do make errors I try not to let it bother me,” he said. “I know that all year they have backed me up consistently.”

Yet, mishaps from the inexperienced would continue. This time, it was Hanover.

The freshman, who has committed five errors over his last 11 games, misplayed a line drive by Rendon – allowing the ball to trickle through his legs and into the outfield.

Ranaudo was going strong, but the Tiger defense was not.

As if poor play were contagious, the Tiger right-hander would join the action - overthrowing first on a pick off play, moving Rendon to second.

Two batters later, the freshman designated hitter crossed the plate on a single up the middle – extending the lead to 3-0.

Yet, by the fourth, the Tigers began to chip away at Ojala.

“He threw a lot of breaking balls, and we were having trouble picking them up,” Mainieri said. “He was befuddling us a little bit, but the kids hung in there and kept battling.”

Ojala walked Blake Dean, where the junior immediately moved to second on a balk move. Micah Gibbs singled through the right side to move Dean to third before Ojala hit Mikie Mahtook on a 2-2 pitch – loading the bases.

Sean Ochinko – who got the starting nod over Leon Landry – sent a hopper down the third base line to bring in Dean, seeing the Owls take the force out at third.

Rice would eventually get out of the inning – stranding two LSU runners.

No worries for the men in yellow, for the following frame provided all that was needed.

After Rice led off the sixth with a solo home run by Steven Sultzbaugh, Ranaudo retired the next three batters on seven pitches.

That was the start of the turning point.

In the bottom of the frame, the Tigers tacked on six runs on six hits to take the 7-4 advantage – a lead they would never give up.

“I think our offense started putting it together,” Mainieri said. “I always tell the kids that when you play good teams, you have to have extraordinary offensive nights.”

Extraordinary the inning was.

The freshman tandem of Hanover and Nola redeemed their poor play in the field with a quick start to the frame, with Hanover lining a double down the left field line before Nola reached after being hit on a wild pitch.

DJ LeMahieu ended Ojala’s night with a single to left, scoring Hanover in the process.

Then came the biggest break.

Graham sent Taylor Wall, the Owls’ Sunday starter and staff southpaw, to the hill in an attempt to plug the leak.

The Rice lead had been cut to two, and Wall was the sure bet to make sure it stayed that way.

Two pitches later, Ryan Schimpf – who was hitless against Ojala - sent a three-run shot soaring over the right field fence – his 19th home run on the year.

And, just like that, LSU had the lead.

“I had two terrible at bats earlier in the game, and I just tried to get it out of my mind,” Schimpf said. “I wasn’t looking for the home run, I was just trying to drive something up the middle and stay through it. Fortunately I was able to put a pretty good swing on it and get it out there.”

Wall’s stay would be about as short-lived as they come – going one-third of an inning and allowing three runs on three hits.

For right-hander Matthew Reckling, the events would not be a far cry from those experienced by Wall – giving up two runs on two hits in two-thirds an inning of work to close the frame.

Taking a 7-4 lead into the sixth, Mainieri’s crew had turned the tables in the biggest of ways.

The breathing room, Ranaudo said, was all that was needed.

“It was great to have that huge inning and really shut them down after that,” he said. “We let our batters relax, and after that they just kept putting up runs.”

By the time he was back up in the sixth, Schimpf could not miss. The junior doubled to right center to score LeMahieu, advancing to third on the play courtesy of an error by the Rice center fielder. Three pitches later, the junior crossed the plate on a Blake Dean sacrifice fly.

The Tigers, down three runs just two innings prior, had taken a 9-4 lead.

“When we played Southern, we struggled through several innings, and in the press conference I talked about why baseball is played in nine innings,” Mainieri said. “This game is another example of that.”

Ranaudo handled the rest, allowing just one hit over his final three frames of work. When it was said and done, the sophomore had worked 7.2 innings and allowed five runs on five hits.

While Bertuccini started off on the wrong foot – allowing a two-run home run off his second pitch – the Tigers continued to provide support at the plate, scoring two runs on three hits to push the lead to 12-6 after eight.

Saving All-American closer Matty Ott for the weekend, Mainieri sent senior reliever Buzzy Haydel to the mound.

The Gonzales native would get the final three outs, but not before Graham’s crew made a little noise – highlighted by a two-run, two-out homer by Brock Holt that cut the lead to three.

Yet, when Rick Hague grounded to short for the games’ final out, the inning became water under the bridge.

“This Regional and Super Regional is about winning five games,” said Mainieri last weekend after his team took Sunday’s title game from Minnesota.

Four down, one to go.

Even better for the Tigers outlook: Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year Louis Coleman is set to take the hill for the purple and gold.

“We have Louis, and they have Ryan Berry I assume,” Mainieri said. “Those are two great pitchers. I am sure both kids will play hard and we will have a great game.”

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