LSU in comfort zone now - the elimination arena

OMAHA, Nebraska - In the restaurant business, they call it a "soft opening." The grand opening follows later when the chef and staff are at their very best at a more prime time.

LSU held a soft opening in the national championship best-of-three series on a Monday night at the College World Series. It wasn't at its best and lost, 4-3, to Florida in front of 25,679 at TD Ameritrade Park. 

The grand opening is tonight at 7 on ESPN, and the gala extravaganza is being planned for Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN if everything goes right on Tuesday. The menu calls for LSU to have its top chefs will be in the kitchen over the next two nights - senior left-hander Jared Poche (12-3, 3.33 ERA), who is the school record holder in career wins with 39, and junior right-hander Alex Lange (10-5, 2.97 ERA), a first round draft choice by the Chicago Cubs two weeks ago.

And don't forget the short order cook extraordinaire - freshman right-handed closer Zack "Psycho" Hess (7-1, 2.62 ERA, 3 saves here), who took off Monday, which is common in the restaurant industry. And he was a little off Saturday for a few of his mid-90 mph pitches.

"It's comforting to know that we still have Jared Poche going Tuesday fully rested," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who was not nearly as upset as he normally is following a loss. "If we're fortunate enough to win, we've got Alex Lange waiting. We've got Zack Hess rested now with an extra day's rest. So he should be primed and ready to go as well."

In other words, the Tigers have the Gators right where they want them. Florida threw one of its top pitchers - sophomore right-hander Brady Singer, who may be the No. 1 pick of the Major League Baseball draft next year, on Monday night. He gave up eight hits and three runs in seven innings, but he kept getting out of trouble as he struck out a Florida CWS record 12 around two walks for the win to go to 9-5. Then closer Michael Byrne held LSU to one hit in two innings with a strikeout for his nation-leading 19th save.

"His fastball came out of his arm like a frickin' shotgun," said LSU catcher Michael Papierski, who came in with three home runs in the CWS, but was 1-for-4 with two strikeouts.

LSU, meanwhile, started senior right-hander Russell Reynolds, a third-line pitcher so as to rest the above two starters and because the Tigers are without regular starter Eric Walker (8-2, 3.48 ERA). He injured his arm while pitching last week against Oregon State in the Tigers' only previous loss of the CWS.

Reynolds entered the game with the highest earned run average in the history of the CWS championship series, which began in 2003, at 8.59 and the fewest starts and innings pitched in the current season entering the finals series history at zero and 14 and two-thirds innings. He was also starting for the first time since 2015.

Nevertheless, the enthused Reynolds - known as Rock by teammates - started strong, blanking the Gators over the first three innings on two hits with a pair of looking strikeouts. But just after getting an out to start the fourth and mark his longest outing of the season, he walked three straight batters - the first two on nine pitches - and was gone. Austin Langworthy hit a sacrifice fly foul ball for a 1-0 lead off infrequently used freshman reliever Nick Bush. Then Johathan India doubled home two more for a 3-0 lead.

"I got a little greedy there and tried to get an extra inning out of him," Mainieri said. "I just thought, if nothing else, Russell is a strike thrower, and he ends up walking three guys in a row."

All the runs were charged to Reynolds, who dropped to 1-1. Bush also pitched well as he went on to pitch a season high three and a third innings, allowing one run and three hits. Senior and former closer Hunter Newman also threw a season-high two and a third innings of shutout ball.

"We went against one of the best pitchers in the country, and we were having to piece it together with our bullpen guys," said Mainieri, who seemed prepared to lose softly. "It was a tough match-up for us, and we knew that. It was amazing we were right there and had a chance to win."

Now, LSU is in its comfort zone - in the elimination arena. The Tigers fell to 1-2 in non-elimination games at the CWS with the loss, having previously lost to Oregon State, 13-1, last Monday following a 5-4 win over Florida State on CWS opening day a week ago Saturday. LSU is 3-0 in elimination games with a 7-4 win over Florida State a week ago Wednesday two wins over No. 1 seed Oregon State on Friday and Saturday.

"We don't think the series is over by a long stretch," Mainieri said.    

"I mean, that's the great thing about baseball," LSU right fielder Greg Deichmann said. "You get to come out and play tomorrow. We're not hanging our heads about anything. We're going to come out tomorrow (Tuesday) with a lot of positivity, energy and get after it."

Deichmann had appeared to start another eighth inning rally for his team in the eighth inning with the Tigers down, 4-2. It was in the eighth that LSU scored two for its 5-4 win over Florida State last week. It was in the eighth that LSU scored four to beat Mississippi State, 4-3, in the Super Regional opener.

But not on this night. Deichmann did score one out later to cut the Gators' lead to 4-3 when Josh Smith singled between center and right field. But Smith was thrown out trying to get a double by center fielder Nick Horvath on a close play for the second out.

"It wasn't a reviewable play," Mainieri said. "The ball beat him. I haven't seen the video. I think a lot of people thought he was safe, but I couldn't tell."

Beau Jordan then grounded out to the pitcher to end the inning. LSU went softly into the night for the most part in the ninth as Papierski struck out, pinch-hitter Chris Reid flew out to center and Kramer Robertson lined out to left.

LSU's second and third line of pitchers allowed just six hits, which was three less than the Florida top line did. But the Tigers left seven runners on base, including two in scoring position and had two others thrown out at second. LSU led off the fourth with singles by Antoine Duplantis and Deichmann, but Singer let no one else dance as he struck out Zach Watson, Smith and Jordan in order to end the inning.

"I think they did a great job," Duplantis said of Reynolds, Bush and Newman. "They kept us in the game. The biggest lead for them was 3-0."

Duplantis hit a solo homer off Singer in the sixth to get LSU within 3-1. Then Jordan hit a two-out RBI single to cut it to 3-2 later that inning. With two on, Papierski failed to keep the rally going as he flew out to end the sixth.

"They kept us in the game the whole time, and we had a chance to win," Duplantis said. "But we just couldn't get those big hits. We just couldn't push it over the edge."

The Gators took a 4-2 lead in the seventh. Langworthy doubled to lead off against Bush. After a sacrifice bunt by India that got Langworthy to third, Mike Rivera hit an RBI single up the middle. Bush got Christian Hicks to ground out for the second out, moving Rivera to second, before Newman replaced him.

Florida, which has rest issues with its staff as well, is expected to start freshman right-handed reliever Tyler Dyson (3-0, 3.55 ERA) on Tuesday night.

"He's got a really good arm," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "So, we're going to ride it."

Florida sophomore right-hander Jackson Kowar (12-1, 4.15 ERA) is expected to start Wednesday - if necessary - with junior ace and first round pick Alex Faedo (9-2, 2.26 ERA) possibly starting and going a few or pitching in relief as he threw 115 pitches in seven and a third innings on Saturday night in beating TCU to reach the championship series.

"Obviously, we have a long way to go," O'Sullivan said.

"We're not hanging our heads about anything," Deichmann said.

Not by a long shot. LSU's top guns were not on display at the soft opening. It's Poche, Hess, Lange and Hess for the rest now.

"We respect the University of Florida," Mainieri said. "But we feel like we're right there with them. And we've got our guys. Jared Poche has been a warrior for us for four years. And I told the kids, we don't have to beat these guys twice. We've just got to beat them Tuesday."

 

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