HOOVER, Ala. Here are three things we learned from No. 6 LSU's thrilling 3-2 victory over Alabama, ousting the relentless Crimson Tide from the SEC baseball tournament.
1. The Tigers really know how to finish on a high note
On paper, LSU did everything necessary to rack up an easy victory over Alabama and advance to Saturday's semifinal against Arkansas:
The offense rolled for 11 hits; the respective leadoff men reached base safely six times; the Tigers bullpen was letter-perfect in the final two innings (five strikeouts to close) and starting pitcher Ryan Eades (two runs allowed, four Ks) encountered four or less batters in six of his seven innings.
And yet, the Tigers were fortunate to collect the victory their 50th of the season needing a flurry of timely hits in the ninth inning to overtake the lead and stay alive in the tourney.
"What a tremendous ballgame," said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri in his post-game address. "It was a little frustrating we had the leadoff hitter on five times" but hit into four double plays.
Overall, though, "I thought we had some really good at-bats."
The Tigers' lineup exudes excellence throughout the order, with five batters Sean McMullen (2 for 4 on Friday), Alex Bregman, Mason Katz (three hits), Raph Rhymes, Christian Ibarra boasting averages well above .300.
That doesn't even include strong supporting assets like Mark Laird (two hits), Tyler Moore and Ty Ross the latter pair connecting on the tying and winning hitsRBI from Friday.
As for Eades, the No. 3 starter in a stacked rotation (with Aaron Nola and Cody Glenn), his efficiency was paramount to LSU keeping within striking distance, requiring only 72 pitches to breeze through seven innings.
"I thought his command was much better today," said Mainieri. "(Eades) threw a lot of first-pitch strikes."
In the postgame discussions, the junior Eades had no trouble quantifying the significance of beating Alabama, before a full house at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
"This was the biggest game of the season," said Eades, whose seasonal ERA dipped to 2.68. "I wanted to make adjustments after my start last week (five runs allowed in four innings against Ole Miss) and improve. I wanted to keep my team in the game and pitch as long as I could."
2. Alabama frosh Mike Oczypok picked the ideal time to have a true coming-out party
The right-handed Oczypok, facing a major rival and likely favorite for the College World Series, responded with a big-time outing, carrying a one-run lead into the ninth inning.
In fact, he had Tyler Moore down to his last strike with two outs and the Tide nursing a 2-1 lead. After the count opened at 3-1, and then 3-2, Oczypok (five strikeouts over 8 23 innings) forced Moore into three straight foul balls, building up the crescendo of Alabama's excitednervous fans with every pitch.
But with the wind blowing in and LSU seemingly out of miracles, Moore laced a double to right-center, allowing Christian Ibarra who kept the game alive with a single to score the tying run. After a pitching change (Alabama's Jay Shaw), Ty Ross strode to the plate and punched a seeing-eye single to left field, bringing home Moore for the winning run.
But the devastating turn of events wasn't enough to minimize the magnitude of Oczypok's breakthrough day.
"I really let my defense play behind me, and they did a really good job," said Oczypok, a walk-on who had auditioned for 'Bama officials in collegiate summer leagues last year. "I was very blessed by Coach Gaspard. I wanted to be on this team. In the fall, they really just gave me a shot, and I took advantage of it."
The audition continued into Friday, with Gaspard acknowledging that Oczypok could have a prominent role with the Tide next week (NCAA regionals). The freshman left a similar mark with LSU's skipper, too.
"(Oczypok) surprised us a little bit, he was pretty good," said Maineri, noting the kid's hard sinker, good accuracy and great velocity.
3. The Crimson Tide missed an opportunity to secure a 2-seed for the NCAA regionals ... even if it doesn't matter in the overall scope
At 34-26 overall and with a losing record in SEC play, Alabama bears the look of a bubble team that desperately needed a blue-chip victory over a top-10 team, like LSU.
But with a No. 28 RPI ranking and top-flight strength of schedule, Gaspard appeared comfortable with the Tide's chances of making the NCAA tourney. In fact, his only dilemma lies with the following:
Was Alabama's exhaustive, but successful tourney week (2-2) enough to warrant a regional 2-seed?
"I thought both teams played extremely well. I thought, offensively, we did a really good job," said Gaspard, in his fourth season leading the Tide. "It was just one of those games that didn't line up for us, but I was really pleased with the effort."
In four-team, double-elimination regionals, the top seed plays the No. 4 club in the opening round, with the 2s and 3s battling it out, as well. Since the No. 1 seed typically hosts that weekend, it's essentially a moot point between the 2s and 3s.
A first-day win, no matter the seed, remains imperative.
Of course, there's no shame attached to being a 3-seed. In last year's NCAA regionals (16 total), the No. 3 club produced two weekend champs (both 3-0 overall) and accounted for seven teams in the regional final.