Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE – The rain did not come, but LSU’s postseason reign continued to pour after some rough weather through the first two-thirds of its NCAA Regional baseball opener Friday afternoon.
The top-seeded Tigers found themselves tenuously trailing low-seeded Southeastern Louisiana 4-2 going into the bottom of the seventh inning and staring down their first loss in the history of the program in an NCAA opener at home.
Then everything changed but the weather, and LSU stormed back with two in the seventh and four unearned runs in the eighth for an 8-4 victory in front of 9,328 at Alex Box Stadium as the Lions committed three errors in the last two innings.
“I don’t care what they look like at this point,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “At this time of year, it’s Omaha or bust. We just had to grind this one out.”
The Tigers (45-14-1 and No. 8 national seeds) will continue on their road to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series at 7 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Friday’s 7 p.m. game between No. 2 seed Houston (44-15) and No. 3 seed Bryant (42-14). No. 4 seed SLU (37-24) plays the loser of Friday night’s game at 2 p.m. Saturday.
LSU ace junior right-hander Aaron Nola (10-1, 1.49 ERA), a two-time All-American and two-time Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year, will start for the Tigers as Mainieri saved him and went with No. 2 starter Jared Poche against SLU.
That did not look like the right decision as the afternoon progressed with Poche struggling and allowing eight hits and four runs in six innings. The Lions went up 1-0 in the first on a solo home run by Andrew Godbold and tied it 2-2 in the fifth on an RBI double by ninth batter Jacob Williams.
SLU went up 4-2 in the sixth after two outs when Poche walked Daniel Midyett and wild pitched him to second. Then Sam Roberson took Poche over the left field wall for a two-run home run. Zac Person relieved Poche to start the seventh.
“We had them on the ropes there until late,” SLU coach Matt Riser, who was on the verge of breaking LSU’s 21-game winning streak in NCAA Regional openers going back to 1986 and winning the first in his program’s history since 1992.
“Our big thing is to eliminate the big inning, and that didn’t happen today,” Roberson said. “It just shows that whenever that happens, it kind of bites you in the butt.”
Consider Southeastern bitten.
“That’s a really good ball club,” Mainieri said. “They played inspired and well, at least for about the first seven innings of the ballgame. Then things kind of unraveled for them.”
LSU’s seventh inning started fittingly with a gift base when SLU starter Andro Cutura hit Alex Bregman. After Jake Fraley struck out, the tiring Cutura walked Sean McMullen. Kade Scivicque then singled to left field, but Bregman was held up at third by coach Will Davis. That is, until left fielder Kyle Cedotal fumbled the ball, and Bregman took off and scored on the error to cut SLU’s lead to 4-3.
Tyler Moore, who finished 3-for-4, greeted SLU reliever Matt Pittari with a single to left-center field that scored McMullen to tie it 4-4 and would have scored Bregman anyway, but the Lions were beginning to unravel.
LSU’s eighth inning rally started with a one-out error by Lions’ catcher Jameson Fisher on a weak tapper by Christian Ibarra in front of the plate. Fisher threw it by first base, and Ibarra got to second. Mark Laird, who was 3-for-5, beat out a grounder to shortstop for a single off reliever Dylan Hills that put runners on the corners.
Hills tried to keep the speedy Laird close to first, but his pickoff throw went by first as the crowd went wild. Ibarra scored for a 5-4 lead, and Laird reached third on the error. Bregman put LSU up 6-4 with an RBI groundout to shortstop. Fraley singled to keep things going.
Then McMullen ended all the tension with a two-run home run to left center field for the 8-4 lead.
“It definitely got us more breathing room,” McMullen said of his second home run in two games and seventh of the season. “I think the crowd is a huge advantage for us. You kind of notice a difference in this part of the year.”
Nate Fury (3-1) no-hit the now shell shocked Lions in the eighth and ninth for the win. Hills (6-4) took the loss.
Cutura allowed nine hits and four earned runs in six and one-third innings, throwing 98 pitches after throwing more than 160 in two appearances in the Southland Conference Tournament last week.
“This team is definitely not afraid of anybody,” Cutura said. “This is the first time for a lot of us to play here, and in the first inning we put one out of the park. That told LSU we weren’t afraid. It’s not impossible. We’ll beat them. We’ll beat them, if we play them again in this regional.”