LSU survives despite rough spots
BATON ROUGE, La. -- They all sat at the news conference interview table after LSU won the Baton Rouge regional, evidence of a stretch of games that Tigers coach Paul Mainieri took to calling "zany."
There was shortstop Alex Bregman, with bruises on his face, and outfielder Raph Rhymes, with stitches in his lip, the hitting heroes of LSU's clinching 5-1 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday. The injuries were the result of their nasty collision while chasing a pop fly during Friday's opening regional win over Jackson State.
To their left at the table was pitcher Brent Bonvillain, Sunday's starting, and winning, pitcher against the Cajuns. He likely would not have been given the ball during the weekend at all if not for the suspension of pitcher Cody Glenn for the regional for violating team rules.
It was that kind of weekend for LSU. Every little thing that might go wrong did go wrong.
Yet, at the end of the weekend, the No. 1 seed Tigers (55-9), the No. 4 national seed in the NCAA tournament, had somehow swept through the regional they hosted, running Mainieri's home regional record to 12-0 at LSU.
In the process, LSU set up a showdown with Oklahoma for one of this weekend's most attractive super regionals. The Tigers will be seeking their first trip to Omaha for the College World Series since winning their sixth national title in 2009.
LSU reinstated Glenn Monday following a team meeting. The Tigers hope that things return to a more normal, predictable script.
The disjointed, yet successful, regional weekend -- consecutive, but sometimes troublesome, wins over Jackson State, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Lafayette -- left Mainieri at a loss for words, until a reporter at the news conference offered the word "zany."
"That's a good word, 'zany,' " Mainieri said. "I wasn't counting on using that, but that's a good description of it."
Count the ways LSU's weekend went off the rails.
• Outfielder Mark Laird sprained an ankle at the SEC tournament, leaving his status for the weekend in question.
• Outfielder Sean McMullen pulled a hamstring in Saturday's win over Sam Houston State, forcing Mainieri to go back to Laird for Sunday's game. Another Tiger, Chris Sciambra, missed the game because he was sick.
• Usually steady starting pitcher Ryan Eades struggled with his control Friday against Jackson State and didn't make it out of the third inning.
• LSU's usually reliable defense, often singled out by Mainieri as perhaps the best he's had, had three costly first-inning errors behind ace Austin Nola against Sam Houston, allowing the Bearkats to score five first-inning runs and forcing LSU to have to rally from behind for the 8-5 win.
Despite all that, "We just kept finding ways to win," Mainieri said.
In the process, LSU showed why it has a chance to complete one of the storied seasons in what's already a storied program history.
En route to winning 48 regular season games and getting to 52 wins by the end of the SEC tournament (which the Tigers win), LSU didn't always simply smash teams into submission.
That was the case Sunday. Bonvillain tied up the Cajuns hitters for five shutout innings, and LSU broke open 1-0 with a three-run sixth inning highlighted not by a couple of big swings, but a series of hard-fought singles that upped the Tigers' lead to 4-0.
The left-handed hitting Laird started the rally by lining a one-out, opposite-way single off reliever Cord Cockrell. Jacoby Jones followed by grounding a single between third and short, then Bregman followed by grounding one up the middle for a single to score Laird.
With two outs, Rhymes delivered the inning's big hit, a line drive that barely cleared the glove of leaping second baseman Jace Conrad for a two-run single.
"I got a curveball and I went the other way with it," Rhymes said.
It was the story of the inning. LSU's talented lineup did not simply overmatch ULL's bullpen. It competed and sprayed singles.
"We used the whole field," Bregman said. "That was the key to the inning. We used the whole field to hit with."
With that, plus the bonus of a combined three-hitter from Bonvillain, reliever Nick Rumbelow (in perhaps his best outing of the season) and closer Chris Cotton, LSU was also to persevere not only the Cajuns, but the Tigers' own issues.
"I think the whole thing is a testament to these kids," Mainieri said. "No matter what breaks go against us, we find a way."