LSU Slays ‘Unbeatable’ Beavers

College World Series

OMAHA — Amidst all the justifiable hoopla over Oregon State and its mind-boggling 56-4 record through 60 games and its staff ERA that was the lowest by any team since 1976 and its pair of 23-game winning streaks this year, LSU’s own accomplishments managed to get overshadowed. That doesn’t happen often — this is LSU, which has a larger following than any other college baseball program and a richer history than any other team over the last quarter-century. But Oregon State was on a historic run, while LSU’s season was merely superb — but not quite historic.

But LSU was a consensus preseason top-five team that won the SEC’s regular-season co-championship, then won the SEC tournament, then rode a 17-game winning streak right on into the College World Series. In a normal year, that resume would stand out as the nation’s best.

But this wasn’t a normal year. This was Oregon State’s year.

Until Saturday.

You can add another incredible accomplishment to LSU’s remarkable 2017 body of work: The Tigers avenged Monday’s ugly 13-1 loss to Oregon State by rallying through the losers’ bracket with three straight victories, capped by back-to-back wins against an OSU team that hadn’t lost consecutive games since May 13, 2016.

And the Tigers completely shut down the Beavers in both of those games, holding Oregon State to two runs on five hits in 18 innings. They followed up Friday’s 3-1 victory with a 6-1 win Saturday, propelling them to the CWS Finals for the first time since 2009.

“We faced an unbeatable team these last two games,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “They’ve had an amazing year, one for the ages. And to lose four games the entire season, and we beat them two days in a row — it’s hard to predict those things to happen, but that’s why you have to play the games, and our kids embraced the challenge. We’ve got a lot of pride in our program, and they rose to the occasion.”

Given that pride, it’s no wonder LSU responded so well after getting shellacked by the Beavers on Monday. The players knew they were a lot better than they looked in that game, and they sure proved it over their next three games. LSU has played at a high level ever since, and it has looked better and better with each game — starting with a 7-4 win against Florida State in Wednesday’s elimination game, then continuing with Friday’s 3-1 win against OSU.

“We just didn’t place too much emphasis in the fact that we lost by 12 runs in that game,” Mainieri said. “We felt we could play with Oregon State — no disrespect to them. We thought they had a great team, I’ve said that every step of the way. But I felt we had a good team as well. We just needed to play up to our ability and have the kids start to loosen up and have some fun. We did.”

Don’t discount the impact of those intangible factors in a battle between two teams that were pretty evenly matched in the talent department. Sheer willpower and unmatched focus and discipline was a huge driving force behind OSU’s success in close games, which accounted for a sizable chunk of its victories.

Maybe Alex Lange punctured Oregon State’s veneer of invincibility by shutting down the Beavers in Friday’s win. And maybe OSU coach Pat Casey inadvertently gave the Tigers a little extra motivation by unexpectedly announcing he would start Bryce Fehmel instead of Drew Rasmussen shortly before game time. Fehmel had shut down LSU on Monday, but this time the Tigers were ready for him, even though they had been preparing for Rasmussen.

“Quite frankly, it surprised us,” Mainieri said. “You know, we had received word that Rasmussen was going to pitch, and that’s where we preparing guys for. And then less than an hour before the game we were told they were pitching the other kid. Honestly, it kind of angered our players, to be honest with you. They thought they were trying to pull something on us. And our players were bound and determined to take advantage of who they did pitch.”

The Tigers jumped on Fehmel early, establishing themselves as the aggressor. Kramer Robertson singled to lead off the game, and the Tigers took control one inning later with a two-out rally. It started with a Josh Smith walk and a Beau Jordan double, putting men on second and third. Then Fehmel tried to sneak a fastball by Michael Papierski up and in, and Papierski turned on it for a three-run homer to right. LSU never looked back.

LSU’s Michael Papierski (Eric Sorenson)

Two innings later, the switch-hitting Papierski added a solo homer from the right side against Brandon Eisert, making him the first player to hit two homers in a CWS game since 2010, and the first to do it from both sides of the plate since at least 1999 (the records for that do not go back further).

“Definitely feels good to get this win and to go to the College World Series Finals,” Papierski said. “I put some good swings on fastballs today. And after that the wind helped a little bit. But that wasn’t the highlight of the game. It was Caleb Gilbert.”

Filling in for the injured Eric Walker, Gilbert dazzled in just his fifth start of the year. The sophomore righthander held the dangerous Oregon State offense to just one run on two hits over 7 1/3 innings, racking up seven strikeouts while issuing just one walk. In order to win the CWS, teams usually need new heroes to emerge at unexpected times, and Gilbert certainly came through when his number was called.

Gilbert pitched heavily off his 89-93 mph fastball, and he did an outstanding job of taking what home plate umpire Greg Street was giving him — which was a whole lot. Six of Gilbert’s strikeouts were called, all of them on fastballs well off the plate to lefthanded hitters. It was blatantly obvious from the first inning on that the strike zone was going to be wide, and Gilbert exploited it, getting multiple called strikes on pitches that literally were in the righthanded batter’s box.

“All just fastballs away, just pounding the zone. And the ump was giving me a little bit here and there,” Gilbert said. “But a couple of balls off and just really taking advantage of it, and taking advantage of them being so patient.”

LSU righty Caleb Gilbert (Eric Sorenson)

OSU’s plate discipline is a defining characteristic of its offense, so the Beavers looked out of sorts when their patience went unrewarded. Of course, they saw 121 pitches in the game, and only a handful of them were called strikes that were so far outside the zone as to be unhittable. It certainly affected them, but it’s not the reason they lost.

“I mean, we didn’t adjust,” OSU’s Michael Gretler said. “I think it’s as simple as that. Both teams have to deal with the same umpire, and we didn’t make any big adjustments.”

“You can’t let the umpire dictate a game, and you can’t say it was the umpire’s fault in any way,” KJ Harrison added. “You’ve got to adjust and do with what you’ve got.”

Even the greatest teams need to get hot at the right time and need to catch some breaks in order to win it all. The breaks went against the Beavers over the last two days — on Steven Kwan’s ball off the wall that was wrongly called foul and then not reviewed on Friday, and on all those called strikeouts on balls way off the plate on Saturday. There’s no denying that.

But regardless, LSU just played better, in both games. The Tigers hit three home runs Saturday and allowed just three hits — that’s a winning formula. And Gilbert retired the leadoff man in each of the first eight innings, which prevented Oregon State from being able to apply its usual pressure via motion on the basepaths and the inside game.

“I think all the way up to the last inning of this game, we got the leadoff hitter out in every inning, so that was huge,” Gilbert said. “Especially took away their style of play, which was a bunt-heavy offense, and kind of leaned on their pitching staff to try to produce.”

LSU was able to impose its will on Oregon State, and take away its aggressiveness. That’s awfully hard to do, and it’s a loud testament to just how good LSU is.

“You pretty much think of them that they’re invincible, that they don’t have any weaknesses,” Mainieri said of the Beavers. “And they don’t. They have a very balanced team. They pitched great, great defense. Offensively, they had table-setters, power guys. They had it all.

“But you still have to go out and play the games.”

And LSU just played the last two games better.

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