Commentary

LSU sends Alex Box out in style -- with a CWS-clinching rout of UC Irvine

Originally Published: June 10, 2008
By David Albright | ESPN.com

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Magic Box.

Brought back from the dead after an improbable ninth-inning win by LSU on Sunday night, Alex Box Stadium was alive and kicking -- and screaming -- Monday as the hometown LSU Tigers inflicted pain early and often on a UC Irvine club that appeared to have a case of stage fright in a ballpark that has been a house of horrors for visitors over the past 70 years.

The football-like final score was 21-7 in favor of LSU, which advanced to the College World Series for the 14th time in school history -- and first time since 2004. The Tigers will face national No. 2 seed North Carolina on Sunday night at Rosenblatt Stadium (ESPN2, 7 ET).

"These kids were just not going to be denied today," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "You could see it. I went into the locker room about three hours before the game today and they were loose and relaxed and confident. There wasn't an ounce of nervousness. You could see the determination in their faces."

As final curtains go, this one lacked a lot of drama, which was perfectly fine with the 8,173 fans -- a new ballpark record -- who squeezed into the Box for one last farewell.

[+] EnlargePaul Mainieri
AP Photo/Bill FeigPaul Mainieri orchestrated two of the biggest wins in LSU history this past weekend.

LSU (48-17-1) jumped out to a 6-0 lead after one inning and chased Irvine starter Bryce Stowell after just two outs were recorded and 33 pitches were thrown.

"I'll tell you what won the game for us was Blake Martin going out there in the top of the first inning and pitching so well," Mainieri said. "Remember in the first game of this series we walked the first two batters we faced, so when Martin went out and set the tone that he was going to take charge of the game, I think it gave our hitters a lot of confidence."

Five hits and three home runs had a lot to do with putting the Eaters in dire straits.

"When you get behind in the count against a good-hitting team like we faced, it's a diagnosis for bad news," Irvine catcher Aaron Lowenstein said.

After Irvine (42-18) went down with a quick one-two-three trip to the plate in the top of the first, the Anteaters imploded as LSU exploded for six runs to seemingly put the game out of reach before everyone in the house had settled into their seats.

Tigers third baseman Michael Hollander walked on four pitches and then advanced to second on a wild pitch by Stowell. A Jared Mitchell single to right moved Hollander to third.

Stowell then balked as he tried to pick off Mitchell at first, which allowed Hollander to score the game's first run.

A one-run deficit would have been manageable. Instead, LSU put on one more gorilla ball exhibition as it pounded anything Stowell had to offer over the outfield wall.

[+] EnlargeBlake Martin
AP Photo/Tim MuellerBlake Martin set the pace for the game with his 1-2-3 first inning.

A towering home run to right by designated hitter Blake Dean that nearly hit the Intimidator billboard made it 3-0 LSU. That was followed by back-to-back home runs to left field by catcher Micah Gibbs and first baseman Matt Clark to make it 5-0 Tigers.

And it made the Anteaters look every bit like the tiger bait that was tauntingly chanted by LSU fans as the Irvine players met on the mound to try and find a way to mitigate further damage.

The Eaters only gave up one more run in the first, but the stage had been set that this would unequivocally be LSU's night. And don't be fooled by the final score, because this game was over after the Tigers made their opening statement.

"You cannot, I promise you, you cannot prepare anyone for this [environment] until you get here," Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "This is a very, very special place -- a unique place.

"It's a place like no other."

On a night that produced video-game numbers, a few LSU players clearly stood out.

Gibbs finished 3-for-5 with a home run and three RBIs. Dean was a perfect 5-for-5 with three RBIs. And then there was second baseman Ryan Schimpf, who went 4-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs.

The Tigers finished with 24 hits, including seven home runs.

"You just can't ask for anything else," Hollander said. "You dream about this, to be on a team like this and to be able to play at Alex Box in its final game in front of screaming, hollering, crazy fans.

"They're the greatest fans in the world."

The final out, at 10:01 p.m. local time, was a Tyler Hoechlin grounder to pitcher Anthony Ranaudo. That lead to the customary dogpile on the pitcher's mound, which lead to a celebratory lap around the Box to high-five and thank the fans for their support.

[+] EnlargeBox Stadium
Crystal LoGiudice/US PRESSWIRELSU retired Alex Box Stadium with a big win Monday.

The Tigers ended up playing 1,723 games at the Box, which was originally built as a Works Progress Administration project and was originally known as LSU Diamond from 1938-43. It was renamed Alex Box Stadium to honor the former LSU player who was killed in action during World War II.

LSU won more than 70 percent of its games here, finishing with a 1,207-509-7 record. The first completed game was a 6-5 loss to Minnesota back on March 24, 1938. And the sendoff was the 14-run win over UC Irvine to send the Tigers to their 14th College World Series appearance.

With the curtain finally closed on the original Alex Box and construction on schedule, the Tigers are set to move into their new home when fall ball rolls around.

The new Alex Box Stadium will have all of the creature comforts any player or fan could imagine. More seats, more space in every area and new additions like luxury boxes, an arcade and a Hall of Fame.

But no legacy … yet.

"You can't help but be in this stadium and feel the great history and tradition that has come before us," Mainieri said after Sunday night's remarkable comeback victory. "There has been a lot of success here. And these people know it. I'm not so sure it's ghosts or superstitions as much as it gives the kids great confidence that good things can happen to us here."

Time will tell whether the mojo that permeated this ballpark for much of its 70-year life will migrate the 200 or so yards to the south and take up residence in the new home of Tigers baseball.

If LSU fans have anything to do with it -- and they had so much to do with it in this park -- there will be a new Magic Box as early as 2009.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.

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