OMAHA, Neb. – LSU! LSU! LSU!
The chant in the stands started early Friday afternoon, loudly enough to drown out the facts of life; the Tigers were in a must-win mode and facing a bordering-on-unbeatable opponent who had shelled them by 12 runs only four days before.
But baseball can have a lousy memory. Especially if the guys on the mound are throwing marbles. This was the day good fortune changed in the College World Series, and now we have to find out for how long. Yes, Oregon State can be beaten. Yes, the Beavers can even be outpitched.Matter of fact, they might still be 56-5, but now they’re hanging on the edge of elimination Saturday, just like nearly everybody else has to sooner or later.
Friday was a noisy example of why this game is so hard to predict, since it can change with each different arm in the middle of the diamond. There was Chicago Cubs first round draftee Alex Lange, resolutely working his way through the afternoon, giving up two hits in 7.1 innings of no-margin-for-error baseball. Doing what nobody has been able to do for two months and 23 games: Beat Oregon State, and outpitch the Beavers. That’s happened lately only slightly more frequently than lunar eclipses.
“He went out there against a team with only four losses and dominated the game. It was incredible to watch,” teammate Kramer Robertson said.
“He pitched,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey concurred, “like a big-game guy.”
Yep. Even if he was aided and abetted by a controversial foul call in the third inning that should have been ruled fair and a run-scoring double off the wall by the Beavers' Steven Kwan.
So now, the landscape is different. LSU will be playing its third elimination game of the week Saturday. Oregon State, the march to greatness suddenly in some jeopardy, its first.
“Both teams’ backs are against the walls. Ours’ has been the last two games so we’re kind of used to that pressure now,” Robertson said. “We said the whole week that we don’t have to beat them twice. We just focused on one game at a time. Now we just have to beat them once.”
Tigers second baseman Cole Freeman had a thought on that, too. “The pressure is obviously on both teams because whoever loses is going home. But they’ve only lost four times all year . . . . as a team, when you lose only four, you don’t know really how to lose, because they’ve won so many times. They’ll feel a little more pressure, but they’re a good team. They’re not going to feel that much pressure.”
Not many expected this conversation to even be necessary. What does it look like, when the College World Series suddenly takes a left turn? Higher seeds were 10-0 in this CWS. Until Friday.
It started with early signs, Lange retiring the first seven Oregon State batters he faced. Message sent. This wasn’t going to be 13-1.
“The dude’s a competitor,” said Michael Papierski, who had the best time catching Lange.
“I had a sense of calmness about me this morning when I woke up,” Lange said, and that was the first bad news for Oregon State. He mentioned his experience of pitching in front of the big crowds back home – LSU! LSU! LSU! – as one reason Friday’s surroundings didn’t faze him.
The message was even clearer in the third inning.
KJ Harrison batted with the bases loaded. He did that the other night against LSU and promptly hit the first CWS grand slam ever in TD Ameritrade Park. Wouldn’t a repeat be something?
Never mind. Lange struck him out with a breaking ball to end the inning. One of the most amazing statistics in all of college baseball this season is hitters going 0-for-20 against Lange with the bases loaded, 15 of them striking out. Like the man said, the dude’s a competitor.
LSU! LSU! LSU!
Things had changed, all right. Oregon State, renowned for finding someone to deliver sooner or later, on this day went 0-for-5 with runners on base. Lange, who came in 9-5 and had given up four runs in six innings last weekend against Florida State, outdueled Jake Thompson, who arrived at the ballpark with a 14-0 record.
But obviously, numbers didn’t count much Friday.
“I know we had a better showing in us,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
When Lange left with one out in the eighth, the LSU side of the ballpark stood as one, to a wave of his cap. “The reason you come to Baton Rouge to play baseball is because of the fans,” he said of that moment. “Something I’ll remember forever, for sure.”
If it was possible, the man who relieved him, Zack Hess, was even better. Five batters faced, four strikeouts, nearly all of it heat. “They couldn’t catch up to it,” Papierski said, “so why should we change anything?”
Said Lange, “When it’s time, hand it over to the monster.”
Monday, Oregon State had scored 13 runs. Friday, its last 13 batters went down in order.
LSU! LSU! LSU!
The two Tigers had knocked the No. 1 team off its path with 138 purposeful and mostly unhittable pitches. The Beavers have one day to find the road again. It’s a different College World Series now.