Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE – Houston, you had no problem in Alex Box Stadium when it counted.
The Houston Cougars, losers to LSU, 5-1, Saturday and trailers of a 10-0 LSU by 4-0 late Sunday at a raucous and full Box, returned the Tigers to earth with a bang Monday night by a 12-2 score. It was LSU’s worst loss in an NCAA Regional since falling to Cal State Fullerton and then-coach Augie Garrido, 11-0, in 1992. And it was the Tigers’ first elimination from an NCAA Regional after a 2-0 start in the history of a program long known as either the greatest or very close to that.
“The season coming to an end is the worst day of the year,” a despondent LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Monday night. “It was awful that we had to have our worst game of the year on this date, but it is the way the game is. Just a very tough night.”
The loss eliminated the Tigers from their own home Regional for the first time since 2005 and for only the fourth time since LSU started hosting such tournaments as its rite of summer in 1986. LSU won 13 of 15 NCAA Regionals hosted from 1986 through 2004 and 16 of 18 counting Super Regionals as well in 2000, 2003 and ’04.
Now, the Tigers have been eliminated from the NCAA postseason twice in the last three years alone in the Box, known as the most difficult place to play in the country for visitors with LSU leading the nation in attendance for two decades. And both of those eliminations came with back-to-back losses – 5-4 in 11 innings Sunday and 12-2 Monday to Houston and 3-1 and 7-2 to tiny Stony Brook in the NCAA Super Regional in 2012.
“We were 2-0 in this tournament and seemingly in the drivers’ seat,” Mainieri lamented. “Unfortunately we just didn’t get it done.”
LSU, playing in its 28th home NCAA postseason tournament over the weekend, went into Sunday night’s game against Houston after beating Southeastern Louisiana and Houston to improve to 99-29 overall in NCAA Regional and Super Regional play for a .773 winning percentage that has been No. 1 in the nation for decades. LSU entered the postseason as a top eight national seed for the third straight year and seventh time this century, which means it was expected to reach the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., later this month.
“I thought this team was one of the best teams in the country,” LSU shortstop Alex Bregman said. But the Tigers, who finished third in the RPI-No. 1 Southeastern Conference and won the SEC Tournament on their way to a 10-game winning streak through Saturday, did not play on Sunday and Monday as they had previously.
“I do not think this game was a reflection of our season at all,” Bregman said. “We know that we are a much better team than that. I think we were a better team than what we showed today.”
Mainieri also felt his team (48-16) underachieved over the weekend compared to the regular season and SEC Tournament.
“This game today was not indicative of our season,” he said. “It was as poortly a pitched game as we had all year. When I think of the 2014 season, I’m not going to think about this game.”
Oh, to think of what might have been.
With one more win on either Sunday or Monday, the Tigers would have hosted Texas and legendary coach Augie Garrido – the Skip Bertman of the West – in a best-of-three Super Regional in the Box this weekend with LSU’s 17th CWS appearance and Texas’ 35th on the line. Texas, which won the NCAA Houston Regional over Texas A&M, is second to LSU in NCAA Regional and Super Regional winning percentage at 146-55 and .726. It would have been a College Baseball Brand Name Super “Bowl” Regional in Baton Rouge.
And it all came splashing down. The Cougars (48-16), who were on the cusp for the No. 8 national seed that LSU received, scored four in the eighth Sunday night to tie it and one in the 11th to win it 5-4. Then they put up a touchdown in the third inning Monday night off three relievers for a 9-2 lead and coasted through six pitchers in all to the 12-2 victory.
“I think we came out hot in the first inning,” said Bregman, who singled and scored on Sean McMullen’s two-RBI single as LSU jumped out to a 2-0 lead off Houston freshman starter Andrew Lantrip in the top of the first. “We scored two right off the bat.”
But LSU went scoreless from the second through the ninth, quieting its stadium to echoes, and totaled eight hits to Houston’s 12.
“We just did not really do anything after the first,” Bregman said.
Hauntingly, LSU did a similar thing in the elimination game against Stony Brook two years ago. After tying that game 1-1 in the first on a Mason Katz home run before a rocking crowd, LSU went quietly and finished with three hits in a 7-2 loss.
Jared Robinson (5-1) relieved Lantrip in the third to four-hit the Tigers over six and one-third innings and struck out eight for the victory.
LSU freshman starting pitcher Alden Cartwright entered the game with five SEC starts to his credit, including the SEC title game against Florida just last week, and predicted an LSU victory Sunday night. But he supplied the worst start by a pitcher likely in Mainieri’s eight years at LSU. He threw 11 pitches. Nine were balls. He walked two and hit a batter and was out of there.
Reliever Parker Bugg limited the damage to two runs, but he allowed four runs in Houston’s seven-run third as he walked a batter, hit a batter to load the bases and hit another batter with the bases loaded.
Brady Domangue, who had not retired a batter since April 29 and had not pitched in a game since May 4, relieved and immediately looked as if he had not faced competition in several weeks. He allowed four hits and three runs with a walk for the 9-2 deficit.
“You can’t help but be happy about a seven-run inning,” said Robinson, who pitched from the fourth through the seventh without an LSU runner reaching second base.
Nate Fury, a much more used reliever than Domangue, finally got LSU out of the inning and pitched four and one-third innings of three-hit, shutout ball, but it was too late for LSU and for Fury, a senior. “I did not want to come out of the game. I was tired, but I wanted to pitch all night,” he said.
“Never really gave LSU a chance to get back in the thing,” said Houston coach Todd Whitting, whose team will play at Texas this weekend in the Super Regional.
“I talked about just hanging in there,” Mainieri said of the growing deficit in the third after Cartwright’s disastrous appearance. “It didn’t work out as we planned. The third inning was a nightmare. I thought we were ready to play today.”
As the innings went on in a three-hour, 37-minute game, LSU’s dugout looked like it just wanted to go home.
“Just end it,” a disgusted LSU fan yelled from the now spacious upper seating area at the Box as Houston tacked on three in the eighth for the 12-2 final.
“This is a program that I have dreamed of playing at for my whole life,” said McMullen, a senior who played his last game. “And it is now at an end. There is really not much more I can say.”
Just 24 hours prior, LSU led 4-0 and was six outs away from Fury and McMullen and others having more – maybe many more – games to play. From the eighth inning Sunday through the third inning Monday, Houston shut the Box with a thud, outscoring LSU, 14-2.
“To be able to steal momentum in this ballpark, which I think is the toughest place to play in college baseball, especially when you’re facing an LSU that’s the hottest team in baseball coming off an SEC championship,” Whitting said and paused. “To grab that momentum Sunday and be able to play through it today, you’ve just got to tip your hat to our club. This place was rocking and rolling.”
But now the Box and LSU are closed for summer.