By Trey Mongrue
Coming off his latest dominant outing in a 5-1 win over Houston last Saturday, LSU pitcher Aaron Nola fielded a question about that game potentially being the last time he would toe the rubber at Alex Box Stadium. Nola answered the question genuinely, but something about it didn’t make him seem to think that he pitched his last game as a Tiger just yet.
At the time, the Tigers were sitting pretty, needing just one more win away from hosting their third straight Super Regional, while every other team playing in Baton Rouge this past weekend needed three victories to advance.
As it turns out, Saturday’s gem from Nola would be his final one as a Tiger – barring, of course, a Mark Appel type situation in this Thursday’s Major League Baseball Draft, in which Nola, like Appel, decides to return for another season despite being chosen with a first round pick.
Two days later would prove to be the final game of LSU’s 2014 season, as LSU lost twice to Houston in two days.
“We thought we were ready to play,” said head coach Paul Mainieri afterwards. “It was awful that we had have our worst game of the year on this date.”
You will have to pardon me if I am still a little puzzled at this sudden end to the season. After all, it was not that long ago that LSU was a mere six outs away from winning the regional and advancing to a third straight Super Regional on Sunday night.
But in the 13 innings that followed, Houston outscored the Tigers 17-2 to advance to keep its postseason alive.
The 2014 season was most definitely a roller coaster for LSU and with the way they capped off the regular season and strolled through the SEC tournament, the ride was at its highest peaks. These two losses to the Cougars have thrown the cart off the rails leading to a fiery demise.
In terms of LSU’s storied baseball past, the events that transpired Sunday and Monday night are unprecedented.
Since Mainieri took over before the 2007 season, LSU had hosted four regionals prior to this season and had never once lost a game at that stage. Under Skip Bertman and Smoke Laval with this current postseason format that was instituted in 1999, LSU had played in a regional Game Seven three times, and all three times the Tigers came out on the other side as the victors.
Whether it was Warren Morris in Omaha, Jon Zeringue against UNC-Wilmington or the murderer’s row of bats that gave the old Alex Box Stadium a fond farewell, this time of year has always had a veil of mystique in the air when it came to LSU and its postseason baseball.
Essentially, LSU plays its best when the games matter most.
Coming into the regional in the midst of playing its best ball of the season, LSU seemed destined for a return trip to the College World Series after winning its first two games of the regional. That thought was reinforced with Kade Scivicque’s second inning home run on Sunday, followed by Tyler Moore’s inside the park home run that basically caused Houston head coach Todd Whitting to have a meltdown in front of 9,000-plus fans and those watching online.
Like many teams that found themselves staring down the barrel in past Baton Rouge Regionals, Houston looked rattled, and LSU appeared to have everything under control. Yet somehow, the Cougars came back and scored five unanswered runs to win in extra innings.
A day later, LSU seemed to be destined for a rout with an aggressive approach at the plate that produced two runs before Houston could grab a bat. That was not the case as Houston did all the scoring from there out and pulled out a 12-2 postseason victory at The Box that even had Stony Brook jealous.
“This is a humbling game,” said Mainieri. “I’ve been around it too many years to know that things can change in a moment’s notice.”
While still there, that LSU postseason mystique has waned considerably in the last decade or so.
Think of the team as how opposing golfers view Tiger Woods in his current form. Yeah, he is probably not the guy that you want to be chasing a Major championship on a Sunday, but gone are the days when everybody around him wilts under the pressure to beat him.
As is the case with LSU in college baseball. Teams probably will not want to draw LSU in future regional brackets. However, pulling out a postseason win over LSU is no longer viewed as an impossible feat.
But like Mainieri said, things can turn on their head rather quickly. Heck, we saw things an abundance of changes in this season alone.
Following the loss, Bregman fielded a question regarding failed expectations for this past season. As he answered he showed a little smirk as if he knew something that maybe the rest of the room didn’t.
“That’s the game of baseball though,” he said. “It’s about failure. You have got to get back up when you fall down and that is what all of us are going to do whether they are done playing baseball, whether they go on professionally or for those of us that will be back next year.
“We are just going to get back up and keep fighting.”
For the 2015 LSU baseball team, the fight began with the last out of the 2014 season.