LSU’s woes in the final month of the regular season have been well chronicled. After starting 32-6 the club dropped 14 of their final 18 games, needing a series victory over Mississippi State the week prior to the SEC Tournament just to land their bid.
Once in Hoover, the Tigers captured their third-straight SEC Tournament title, running through the competition behind perfect pitching to post a 4-0 record.
As the team packed their bags to head away from Baton Rouge for Regional play for the first time since 1989, the question loomed: which LSU baseball team would show up during the next stretch of road?
After 11 innings of back-and-forth baseball with the Anteaters, the Tigers had an answer.
Down to their final out and trailing by a run, LSU was without a base runner. Anteater reliever Eric Pettis had made quick work of the first two batters of the frame, hoping to avoid the fate that followed him in 2008 when he gave up a ninth-inning lead against LSU in game two of the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
Then came a misstep, this time a walk to Austin Nola.
After Alex Edward singled, Pettis walked Leon Landry to load the bases for Trey Watkins. Watkins, who missed over a month of the season with an elbow injury, then delivered the game-winner on a 1-2 pitch, sending a two-out, two-run double over Sean Madigan’s reaching glove in right field.
A herd of Tigers from the dugout swarmed towards second base to congratulate the sophomore left fielder, who had made just his first plate appearance since May 22.
Fittingly enough, it wasn’t the only late-game magic that the defending National Champions had up their sleeve on the afternoon.
Trailing 8-5 after seven, UC-Irvine began to chip into the LSU lead with a solo homer by Francis Lawson, his second of the game. Later in the frame, Tiger pitcher Zach LaSuzzo gave up an infield single to allow a run to score from third.
In the top of the ninth, pinch hitter Jordan Leyland hit an RBI double off Joey Bourgeois to tie the score at 8-8, and Ryan Fisher followed with an RBI single to push the Anteaters ahead.
When Blake Dean singled with two outs in the bottom of the frame, Mainieri made the first in a string of late-game roster moves, using Johnny Dishon to pinch-run for Dean at first.
The call paid off immediately when Nola popped a single into right field that fell short of a diving Madigan. After the ball rolled past the fallen Anteater, Dishon rounded third in time to beat the throw back to the plate.
“I'm so proud of our kids for making two comebacks with two out and nobody on in the ninth inning and again in the last inning,” Mainieri said. “It was a great effort, and we played the way that championship teams are supposed to play when they face adversity.”
On a California afternoon where over four hours of baseball produced a combined 21 runs on 35 hits between the sides, the Tigers, a team that traveled nearly 2,000 miles to make their postseason appearance in Los Angeles, had scripted up a Hollywood finish.
“UC-Irvine is such a difficult team to play; they're relentless and they slap the ball all over the field,” Mainieri said. “It's a credit to the determination of our players that we were able to win this game.”
Starter Austin Ross carried LSU into the seventh, lasting 6.1 innings and allowing five earned runs on nine hits. When he gave way to Paul Bertuccini, the bullpen hit a rut, seeing Mainieri work through Bertuccini, Chris Cotton, LaSuzzo, Bourgeois and Jordan Rittiner before settling in with Ben Alsup (5-0), who lasted the final two innings to get the win, his fifth on the season.
After falling behind early, LSU tied the score with a two-run third before taking the lead on an Alex Edward solo home run in the fourth. Four runs in the fifth, three coming on a Micah Gibbs long ball, helped the Tigers stretch their lead to 7-3.
LSU will face the winner of Friday night's game between top-seeded UCLA and No. 4-seed Kent State Saturday at 8 p.m. CT. The Anteaters (37-20) will face the loser of the UCLA-Kent State game at 4 p.m. CT.