By James Bewers
After his club’s 8-2 win against Tulane in Game 5 of the Baton Rouge Regional, UNC-Wilmington coach Mark Scalf was very matter-of-fact when asked about adjustments for the rematch against LSU in the championship round.
“We need to square a few more balls up than we did last night, no doubt,” Scalf said with a slight chuckle.
It took until 1:09 a.m., but by the end of the Tigers (51-10) and Seahawks first meeting in the regional, UNCW had squared up only six balls that didn’t go for outs and had zero runs to show for it. In fact, only one runner reached third base.
Diving curveball after diving curveball, freshman ace Alex Lange, who won’t talk about himself unless he’s asked, turned midnight madness at Alex Box Stadium into midnight magic.
“He’s the next in the long line of humble superstars that we’ve had around here—guys that care so much about the team more than anything else,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said after the game. “But man, what a performance.”
“When you’ve got pitchers throwing like Poche’ and Lange, you don’t have to do too much.”
– LSU outfielder Andrew Stevenson
– LSU outfielder Andrew Stevenson
Just when Mainieri thought he had seen the top performance—a complete game shutout with 12 strikeouts from Lange—from the drenched and dragged out regional, the ninth-year head coach received an almost equally good one from a player who was searching for redemption.
After giving up five runs in one inning of work in his SEC tournament start, left-handed hurler Jared Poche’ was just an out short of matching the length of Lange’s outing and added a career-high eight strikeouts in the Tigers’ second meeting with UNCW on Monday, advancing LSU to the Super Regionals.
Hence, Scalf didn’t get what we wished for the second time around, which was something his normally consistent offense wasn’t prepared for.
“Their staff is outstanding, and that’s one of the reasons they’re in the position they’re in,” Scalf said.
Most knew about the capability of the undefeated Lange, but there were natural reservations about Poche’, who blew a four-run lead against South Carolina a week before the SEC tournament. The sophomore southpaw, though, erased the doubt of his steadiness, providing a gritty win with command over his lows-90s fastball and swing-and-miss breaking ball.
“You know, it’s pretty indescribable to be honest, walking off the field with all those fans cheering,” Poche’ said. “I couldn’t help but have a little grin. For me coming off of last week’s performance and having an outing like that, it definitely helps for next week momentum-wise and just kind of helps me lock in and get in the zone.”
Lange’s complete game may have been flashier than Poche’s 8 2/3 innings on the hill, but the two pitchers’ performance had striking similarities.
Poche’, like Lange, allowed only one runner to reach third base, and both occurred in the exact same inning of each game. Both LSU pitchers gave up exactly six hits, and both needed an outstanding defensive play to prevent potential run-scoring situation.
But the strangest parallel between the two meetings against the Seahawks was the amount of run support both Tiger pitchers were given, which was just two. For a team that is top 10 nationally in runs scored and batting average, the dominance by Poche’ and Lange wasn’t just impressive, but was also necessary.
The victories against UNCW totaled the seventh time LSU had scored two runs or less in 61 games—four of which were losses.
At times, it has been the other way around for the Tigers, with their offense atoning for lackluster pitching, but the 17 2/3 combined innings from Lange and Poche’ revealed the strength of this weekend’s performance lied with the arms against an offense that has been top 10 nationally in batting average.
“I’d put our lineup up against any team in the country,” said junior center fielder Andrew Stevenson. “It speaks to what coach [Mainieri] has done, the kind of players he recruits. But when you’ve got pitchers throwing like Poche’ and Lange, you don’t have do too much.”
Not only were Poche’ and Lange able to go above and beyond what may have been expected, they did so under unusual circumstances. Lange, who became the first freshman to record 100 strikeouts, waited two extra hours after a rain delay to begin his start on late Saturday night, which finished on early Sunday morning.
Due to another delay and the threat of impending weather, Poche’s 10 days of rest after his appearance in the SEC tournament was extended to 11 days for a noon first pitch on Monday.
Lange could have been physically fatigued for 10:16 p.m., first pitch. Poche’ could have been rusty from the period of rest made longer. But none of it mattered because only one goal was in mind.
“You just never know when the game was going to start, obviously, because we had the game before it, and they had to finish up,” Lange said. “You’ve just got to stay in the zone. You’ve got to stay loose in the locker room, not really tighten up and start to over think things. Just stay relaxed. You just stay within yourself.”
LSU fans may never again see two consecutive shutouts from LSU pitchers in the postseason, which was a program first. Those two starts may be the best from either pitcher this season, and the offense will certainly have to return to it’s form against a pesky UL-Lafayette team in the Super Regionals.
But Lange’s night in late May and Poche’s afternoon in early June will have it’s own place amongst the memorable regional moments this program has become accustomed to.
“[Lange] was just dominating, thrilling, exhilarating,” Mainieri said. “And then just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see [Poche’] go out there and pitch the way he did. [It was] a different style [than Lange], but [it was] equally effective and equally courageous. It was a very efficient regional, but also thought, at the same time, it was spectacular in some ways, too.”