CWS, Day4: Tigers take us to the ICU, Fresno takes Carolina

LSU... lemme tell you something. You guys are freaks!

Maybe the most freakish team I've ever seen in my 30+ years of following college baseball. And of course, I mean freaks in a good way.

CWS08-JaredMitch.jpg
(Jared Mitchell screams for vengeance as he heads toward home)

Today's heart-wrenching win was another microcosm of the Tiger season. They looked pretty damn awful early on. Getting picked off bases. Not coming close on attempted steals. Playing with no energy. Then, a switch is turned on and it's as if those guys went into a phone booth and put on tights and a cape.

Now that I think of it, isn't that the way your football team played last season too? We all know how that ended up. Hmmm, ponder that people.

But let's not get too geeked about the Tigers alone. Is everybody ready to talk about Fresno State for the national title now? It's time. This team is the cockroach that survives the nuclear winter. And no FSU fans, I'm not calling your team a bunch of grotesque pests... you're just so never-say-die man. It's killin' me. And that's in a good way too.

Awesome.

As a good way to sum up the feeling here in Omaha today, when the working press got down to the press conference room here in Rosenblatt Stadium tonight, my good bud Mark Etheridge of SEBaseball.com turned to me and said, "You know. this was great. This is the reason you and I do this." So true.

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GAME ONE---
Conditions at gametime:
75 degrees, 38% humidity and winds out of the SSE at 7mph

Rice - 020 011 100 - 5 10 3
LSU - 000 000 114 - 6 11 0

WP: Louis Coleman (8-0)
LP: Cole St. Clair (10-3)
Save: none

Top Hitters:
Rice-
Aaron Luna, 2-for-3, 1RBI, HR
Chad Mozingo, 2-for-4
Rick Hague, 2-for-3, 2RBI

LSU-
Jared Mitchell, 1-for-5, 2runs scored
Blake Dean, 2-for-4, 3RBI, game-winning double
Derek Helenihi, 3-for-4


Mainieri Magic does in the Owls again.

Six years to the day that his Notre Dame Fighting Irish stunned the Southern college baseball culture with a jog-off, two-run bomb to beat Rice 5-4 in the 2002 CWS elimination game, his Tigers turn mean and pull the heart out of the Owls again with today's stunning come-from-behind win.

Blake Dean provided the fireworks with a bases-loades laser-shot double off the wall to send home the three winning runs.

CWS08-LSUwinRun.jpg
(The winning runs come home for LSU. Note the vertical jump on Coach Godwin in the 3rd base coach's box. White men CAN jump.)

Once again, it just seems like the entire Earth tilted in LSU's favor in another fateful 9th inning. Suddenly, ground balls became seeing eye hits, easy bouncers became odd-bouncing adventures and near-strikeouts became free bases with a plunking.

Next thing you know, LSU has bases-loaded, one out and momentum the size of an elephant. Rice Coach Wayne Graham decided to stick with his hoss lefty Cole St. Clair, who had been on the hill since the last out of the 6th inning.

Then, Blake Dean, a notorious free-swinging hitter, stepped in. Cole seemed to do what most pitchers have done this year and threw a pitch away from Dean. But the hero of the game went with the pitch, slicing a mean screamer off the wall in left field. All three runners on the basepaths came around to score, including Jared Mitchell who never seemed to stop on his way from 1st base.

That sent the Tiger nation into eruption. And it sent Rice Catcher Adam Zornes screaming with anger into his glove.

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(LSU's mob scene of Blake Dean after his game-winning hit)

Odd thing is, just an inning earlier it looked like the Owls had stemmed the momentum rush as the bottom of the 8th inning ended with an impressive throw out of Tiger runner Micah Gibbs at home plate. That kept the score at a three-run deficit and it kept the Rice players thinking this was their day against the Tigers again.

"I was thinking that game was ours after that." Said Zornes. "Chad (Mozingo) made a great throw. And Cole's been our guy all year. It's unfortunate."

CWS08-Play@Plate.jpg
(Adam Zornes makes LSU's Micah Gibbs a sitting duck at home plate in the 8th)

But the Owls can only blame themselves for letting the Tigers back into this one. Cole St. Clair had a two-strike count on pinch hitter Sean Ochinko. But with one out and one on, St. Clair threw a fast ball inside to Ochinko, nailing him on the hand.

Then the error bug came back to bite Rice in the 9th as well, which is something the Owl faithful have been bemoaning in this post-season. Coming into the CWS, Rice defenders had committed 17 errors in five games. Today, add three more to that, including a crucial bobble by frosh SS Rick Hague. That error on a Jared Mitchell grounder, gave LSU added life. It also led to Blake Dean's heroics a batter later.

"All we need is a small door of opportunity." Dean said. "Like when Ochinko got hit, it left the door open and that's all we needed. We all knew we were gonna come back."

And what did St. Clair throw him? "He owned me with fast balls during my first at-bat, and made me look ugly." Dean admitted. That last at-bat he came at me and put a fastball right there and I went with it."

So the Tigers take their rabbit's feet with them as they move on to send their fans to another elimination game on Thursday.

"I was thinking maybe we ran out of our good fortune." Coach Mainieri admitted. "But i shouldn't have had any second thoughts about these guys. They just keep doing it. It's an amazing thing."

Don't worry coach, the Earth is still tilting your way.


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GAME TWO---
Conditions at game time:
80 degrees, calm winds, 38% humidity

North Carolina- 000 300 000 - 3 11 1
Fresno State - 010 120 01x - 5 12 1

WP: Jason Breckley (3-2)
LP: Adam Warren (9-2)
Save: Brandon Burke (13)

Top Hitters:
UNC-
Kyle Shelton, 2-for-3, HBP
Tim Fedroff, 1-for-4, RBI 3B
Chad Flack, 3-for-4, RBI

FSU-
Danny Muno, 3-for-3, Walk, HBP, 5-for-5 on-base
Gavin Hedstrom, 2-for-4
Erik Wetzel, 2-for-5, RBI, 2B
Alan Ahmady, 2-for-5, 2RBI
Ryan Overland, 2-for-2, RBI, HR


This just isn't right is it? Fresno? We're talking about the team with an RPI of 89 going into the post-season?

Guess what? Believe it. Before this game, I went on record as saying that I wasn't going to doubt them any more. I guess my actual quote was, "I've been bitten by that snake enough times already." If you're just now coming around to knowing this team is legit, you're still too late for that common sense bandwagon.

The 4th-seeded Bulldogs are getting that Oregon State-kind of feeling. There hasen't been any one guy in particular getting the glory. Today it was leadoff man Danny Muno, who went 5-for-5 on-base. They also got huge home runs from Ryan Overland and Steve Susdorf, who helped stake out an early lead.

CWS08-FSUOverlandHR.jpg
(The Dogs take the lead on Ryan Overland's dinger. Steve Detwiler welcomes him home)

And don't forget the defensive play of SS Muno and 3rd baseman Tommy Mendonca, who flashed a handful of gold glove moments, despite going 0-for at the dish. They are the ones that kept the ship steady as Carolina got its offense going.

The post-game press conference was all about the full lot of contributions that every player has made this season, particularly the vast number of guys making the trek to the mound. Coach Batesole had high praise for his elder statesmen on the arms corps today. "Tomlinson, Breckley and Burke doing their piece was really big for us. It could be real easy for them to sit back and say they should get the start or pitch so many innings. But they didn't. They decided a long time ago to play together and not worry about that kind of stuff from here on out. That's the kind of guys they are as experienced players."

The Bulldogs took the lead for good by answering UNC's 3-run 4th inning with a 2-run 5th inning. After loading the bases with no outs, a force out at home was followed by Alan Ahmady's two-run single into center field that allowed Gavin Hedstrom and Erik Wetzel to score - Wetzel narrowly avoiding Tim Federowicz's tag. That pushed them out to a 4-3 lead. A lead they never relinquished.

In all, Mike Batesole chose to use five pitchers in all. And in typical off-beat Fresno form, a hurler who threw only three pitches on the night, got the win. That was Jason Breckley, who got Chad Flack to pop up to end the 5th inning with the bases juiced.

"I'm really proud of our seniors. They've been doing everything right for a long time. And they've set a good example for our younger guys, who have been doing the right things for the last six weeks."

That's why Fresno joins Georgia in the unbeaten Bulldog ranks here in Omaha. Go figure.

CWS08-Muno2ndBase.jpg
(Freshman Kevin Muno did just about everything for Fresno tonight, including help the umpire clean off second base)


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NOTES:
- This is getting ridiculous.
LSU has now won 30 games this season in come-from-behind fashion. That includes 19 of their last 26 games. Is anybody really going to ever leave another LSU game before the last pitch is thrown? They shouldn't.

- Smoke Laval recruit vs. Smoke Laval recruit.
When LSU pitcher Jared Bradford faced off with Rice's J.P. Padron, it was a face off between two players that were brought out of high school by then-LSU coach Smoke Laval. Padron ended up leaving LSU after his frosh season and went to San Jacinto JC for a year before transferring in to Rice for two seasons.

- Finally, 1-for-6.
LSU has gone goose-eggs in the five CWS games since Skip Bertman left his post as head coach. In 2003, the Tigers lost to Cal State Fullerton (8-2) and South Carolina (11-10). In 2004, they lost to Miami (9-5) and South Carolina (15-3). Today, they finally exorcised those ghosts with the comeback win.

- Can sports be a metaphor for life?
Coach Paul Mainieri hopes so. In the post-game press conference, Coach Mainieri said, "I think sports is very much a metaphor for lives. I tell my players all the time to never give up. Who knows, maybe someone out there watching on TV today saw our game and can believe that anything is possible, no matter how bad things are stacked against you."

- The Tiger nemesis no more.
LSU had been eliminated by Rice in the NCAA tournament three times.
In the 1995 Regionals in Baton Rouge, the Owls beat LSU 15-7 and 16-9 behind Jose Cruz Jr. and crew. In 2002 over in Houston, the Tigers were skunked 6-0 and 3-0 in the Super Regional round. And in 2005, the Owls pulled the trick in the Baton Rouge Regionals again, beating LSU 9-7 and 5-4.

- Kept pressure on.
Biggest key to the win for FSU tonight? They never took the foot off the pedal. The Dogs got their leadoff hitter on AND runners in scoring position in all of their last five innings at the dish.

Even Carolina coach Mike Fox agreed that was a key component to the game. "That was a big thing. We just couldn't get their leadoff man on and we don't play from behind very well."

- No relish.
Coach Fox, when asked in the post-game his feelings toward facing LSU once again. "I tell ya'. I don't look forward to playing them again (laughs). As you saw today, you've got to play all 27 outs against them."

CWS08-FSUhammingUp.jpg
(Steve Susdorf, Danny Muno and Erik Wetzel ham it up for the camera after the win over UNC tonight)

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert