LSU continues its penchant for the dramatic
OMAHA, Neb. -- LSU designated hitter Blake Dean is trying to focus on picking out a fastball from Rice's super stopper Cole St. Clair that he can turn on in the ninth inning at the College World Series here Tuesday.
Amid this defining moment for both teams at the College World Series -- and with a Rosenblatt Stadium crowd of 19,103 at its most deafening pitch -- Dean still keeps replaying the heartfelt speech Paul Mainieri delivered to him and his teammates when things weren't nearly as magical for the Tigers back in late April.
Mainieri's club had the second-worst league record in the SEC, and time was definitely not on its side.
"Coach came in one day and sat us down in the locker room. We were kind of in a slump -- 6-11, I think -- and he just told us, 'I just want you guys to know that I believe in you. It's not over, let's go out there and go game by game.'" Dean recalled. "He kind of just spilled the beans to us what he thought and felt, kind of personal.
"That showed us how much he cared about us, and that just flipped the switch and it all went from there."
As sophomore catcher Sean Ochinko noted, where the Tigers are today defies logic.
LSU was held to just two hits and trailed Rice 5-0 entering the seventh inning. The sleepwalking Tigers, still down 5-2 with no one on base and one out in the ninth, watched Dean cap a four-run uprising with his three-run double off the left-field wall.
Instead of suffering their sixth straight loss in the Series and packing for Baton Rouge, La., the Tigers had their bead-wearing fans reliving the greatest tales from this season and beyond.
Serenading Mainieri's wife, Karen, on her birthday.
And bringing the coach to remember his only other win at the Series -- six years ago to the day -- when his Notre Dame club overcame a 3-2, ninth-inning deficit against Rice.
"We stay real positive because we always know we're going to get some sort of a push in the late innings," said Ochinko, who, in a pinch-hit appearance, got hit by a St. Clair delivery to give the Tigers runners at first and second. "I don't know whether it's magic or we bear down more, everyone starts believing in each other, but things happen."
But for all the genuineness behind Mainieri's April speech, which lit the fuse to a 23-game winning streak, LSU still found itself, on June 8, three outs from closing 70-year-old Alex Box Stadium as an NCAA super regional series sweep victim of UC Irvine.
Behind 7-4 entering the ninth inning of Game 2, the Tigers proceeded to put up a five-spot to stay alive, then blew out the Anteaters 21-7 the next day.
Before that contest, they heard a gripping tale from Warren Morris, who, with two outs in the ninth inning of the 1996 CWS championship game against Miami, provided the most dramatic moment in LSU baseball history by hitting a game-winning, two-run homer.
Four years later, the Tigers claimed another title with a ninth-inning rally against Stanford.
What they produced Tuesday paled in comparison only because the national spotlight wasn't quite as bright.
Before Tuesday, left-handed St. Clair -- a seventh-round draft pick who returned to school to play his senior season and go for a third crack at winning the CWS -- had allowed just one earned run in 11 2/3 career innings at the event.
He gave up one in the seventh and another in the eighth, but by all rights, the latter inning should have left LSU on fumes. Micah Gibbs, trying to score from second on a two-out single by D.J. LeMahieu, jarred the ball loose from Adam Zornes. But the Owls' catcher, who'd taken a pitch off the jaw in Sunday's game against Fresno State, blocked the plate, then retrieved the ball to tag out Gibbs before he could reach it.
"That was kind of a punch in our face, and it knocked us back," said sophomore Dean. "But we had three more outs to go."
The Tigers were down to two after St. Clair got Nicholas Pontiff to start the ninth with a groundout. But then Derek Helenihi singled up the middle, Ochinko fouled off a two-strike pitch before getting plunked, Michael Hollander drove in a run with another single up the middle, and Jared Mitchell loaded the bases when Rice shortstop Rick Hague bobbled his grounder for an error.
Up stepped Dean, 14-for-33 in the NCAA tournament but in his only at-bat against St. Clair, in the eighth, he struck out swinging at a 3-2 pitch.
"He owned me with fastballs during [that] at-bat and made me look ugly," Dean admitted. "That last at-bat, he came and put a fastball right there."
And the 6-foot, 193-pound left-handed hitter launched the 1-0 delivery the opposite way.
"I thought it was going to leave the ballpark," Mainieri said. "When I saw it hit the wall, all I did was shift my eyes to Jared Mitchell, and all I could see was a blur going around the bases."
Excuse the Tigers, who had nobody taken higher than the ninth round of the major league draft, for being in the same frame of mind.
This one left them a mind-boggling 26-2 in their past 28 games. It marked only the second time in 43 games that Rice had lost when taking a lead into the ninth, and the first time the Owls had come up short in right-handed senior pitcher Chris Kelley's 12 starts.
Oh, then there's this little nugget: It was the Tigers' 30th come-from-behind win of the year -- 19 of which have occurred in the past 26 contests.
"This is the great thing about athletics," Mainieri said. "It teaches us the lessons about life, that no matter how down you are, no matter how hopeless things seem, if you just never give up and never quit believing in yourself, anything is possible. This experience will help these kids, and maybe a lot of people that watched this game, when they have tough times in life not to give up and hang in there, whatever the situation is.
"After the game, I asked them all: Will they ever, ever give up in anything in their life again after witnessing that?"
Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.
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