OMAHA, Neb. – When things appeared to be at their worst here on Wednesday night, after the LSU Tigers added two runs in the top of the ninth inning that put that much more distance between themselves and Florida State, the Seminoles never wavered in the belief that they would come back.
Recent history fueled that faith, and, for a few nearly-magical moments in the bottom of the ninth, the present did, too.
The Seminoles stayed the course until their final out, the same way they did when they were six games over .500 in late April and threatening to miss the postseason. And the same way they did when they won four games in three days to advance from the loser’s bracket of an NCAA Regional. And the same way they did when they fell into trouble early in their NCAA Super Regional.
The only difference this time was the result.
Despite back-to-back home runs from Quincy Nieporte and Cal Raleigh, FSU’s remarkable run to the College World Series ended at the hands – and arm – of LSU freshman Zack Hess, whose 96-mile-per-hour fastball (and strike-zone expanding breaking ball) slammed the door on the Seminoles’ rally and preserved a 7-4 victory for the Tigers.
FSU ends its season 46-23, and as one of the final six teams playing in Omaha.
“I never doubted it,” freshman first baseman Drew Mendoza said. “Even until the last pitch, I thought we had a chance. And I think everybody did.”
They were right, as improbably as it might have seemed just moments before.
Through eight innings, LSU starter Jared Poche’ had been masterful, limiting the Seminoles to just a pair of runs on five hits and making the five runs that the Tigers scored in the top of the second feel like much more than that.
But that changed quickly in the bottom of the ninth when Poche’, right after crossing the 100-pitch mark, left one in the zone for Nieporte.
Nieporte, a fifth-year senior, cut the Seminoles’ deficit to four with a solo homer that might have been the hardest-hit ball of the tournament.
At least it was until Raleigh stepped in and delivered a line-drive shot that trimmed LSU’s lead to three.
And with that, the tone inside TD Ameritrade Park began to shift. Yes, the Seminoles still had a steep hill to climb. But, given what had just happened, who could blame FSU fans for feeling optimistic? Or LSU fans for feeling uneasy?
“We were just trying to have fun,” junior shortstop Taylor Walls said. “Who knows what could happen?”
But LSU coach Paul Mainieri then turned to Hess, the 6-foot-6, 216-pound reliever who was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees.
Hess, who sported both the arm and the facial expressions of a seasoned major-leaguer, needed just four pitches to strike out Mendoza. Then five to set down Hank Truluck.
With the Seminoles down to their last out, Rhett Aplin, the designated hitter who had been out since May 7 with a broken foot, stepped in, took his first swings in nearly two months and eventually worked a walk that kept hope alive in the FSU dugout.
But Hess bounced back on the next batter, blowing a pair of fastballs by Tyler Holton before ending the game on a called strike three.
Fans and media following the game on Twitter had a strong reaction to the final pitch, but Holton was a little more diplomatic when asked about it:
“I’m sitting on anything in the zone, just trying to protect (the plate) and fight anything off,” Holton said. “He threw a slider away and I was waiting for it to come back over the plate.
“It was close. I thought it was off the plate, but he rung it up.”
And when he did, it brought an end to a season that lasted far longer than anyone might have imagined two months ago.
As coach Mike Martin noted in his post-game press conference, the Seminoles are one of the seven teams leaving Omaha unhappy.
But, in his mind, the ending doesn’t diminish the road traveled to get there. It was a road that featured some players embracing new roles. And others toughing it out through injuries. And others ignoring the distraction of professional futures and instead focusing on their teammates.
That road finally ended in a ninth inning that Martin won’t soon forget.
“I don’t know if people realize how this team came together and really got after it,” Martin said. “And it was evidenced by that ninth inning we just played. … I’ve never been more proud of each and every Seminole.”