Pitching carried LSU to College World Series

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- The LSU dugout celebrates around pitcher Nick Rumbelow after he struck out a batter during the game between LSU and Oklahoma on Saturday at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- The LSU dugout celebrates around pitcher Nick Rumbelow after he struck out a batter during the game between LSU and Oklahoma on Saturday at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge.

The LSU baseball team needed just a little more than 24 hours and fewer than half of its pitchers to dispose of Oklahoma in the Baton Rouge Super Regional.

The Tigers were so efficient with their pitching and defense that a mere two runs were more than enough to win behind Aaron Nola’s shutout in Game 1 on Friday. That total would have been sufficient in Game 2 as well, though the hitters turned it into an 11-1 rout late Saturday night.

And just like that, LSU had secured a spot in the College World Series beginning Saturday in Omaha, Neb. The Tigers will meet Fullerton (Calif.) Super Regional champion UCLA in their first game.

The Sooners arrived having won eight in a row. They averaged six runs in sweeping through the Big 12 tournament and more than seven in winning the Blacksburg (Va.) Regional in three games.

But in two games against LSU, they managed just seven hits and one run.

“It was pretty simple,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said. “It was their pitching.”

The Tigers have allowed just eight earned runs in five NCAA tournament games. Although a series of uncharacteristic defensive lapses led to six unearned runs in the regional, the pitching still thrived.

For the tournament, LSU has allowed 29 hits and 15 walks while striking out 35 and compiling a 1.60 ERA. And the highlight was Nola’s masterful two-hitter Friday.

“He’s a pitcher,” said Sooners outfielder Max White, who was 8-for-16 in Blacksburg but 1-for-6 in Baton Rouge. “He really stayed down in the zone, and that’s hard for a hitter to adjust to. He mixed it well — in and out.”

When Ryan Eades allowed an earned run in the first inning Saturday, it was the first one allowed by LSU since the first game of the tournament. The Tigers have yielded just 10 hits in the past three games and one home run in the past 10.

Although Eades struggled so much with his command early that coach Paul Mainieri had Nate Fury warming in the bullpen after a leadoff walk in the second inning, Eades survived. He followed with three scoreless innings and seemed at his best when a nearly one-hour weather delay after the fourth inning ended his evening after 65 pitches.

OU didn’t have any success when LSU went to its bullpen for the first time in the series. As the game unfolded, the Sooners kept going to their bullpen — and the Tigers kept scoring. But LSU ran three relievers into the game, and OU didn’t score again.

“Ryan got us deep enough into the ballgame where we could turn it over to the bullpen, and those guys rose to the occasion,” Mainieri said.

First, junior right-hander Will LaMarche made his postseason debut, replacing Eades. After pitching a scoreless fifth, he couldn’t get the third out in the sixth before putting on two runners. But Nick Rumbelow came in and bailed him out with a strikeout.

LaMarche, who was as erratic of a pitcher as the Tigers had early in the season, continued his late-season surge. His 1.2 scoreless innings got him the win, just as two scoreless innings had gotten him a win in his previous outing, in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament. He has allowed just one run in his past nine appearances, covering 10.2 innings.

Rumbelow, who pitched a scoreless seventh, had been dominant in his previous appearance — a perfect 2.2-inning stint that included four strikeouts in the regional-clinching victory against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Mainieri credited his pitchers’ performance to pitching coach Alan Dunn.

“He has been unbelievable, and the way he works with our guys is amazing,” Mainieri said. “He knows what each guy’s strengths are and what their limitations are. He’s done an amazing job with all those guys, and everyone contributes.”

Closer Chris Cotton came in an inning earlier than usual Saturday when he started the eighth, and he threw two perfect innings, needing only 23 pitches.

When it was over, LSU had zipped through its super regional without using three key pitchers. Co-No. 2 starter Cody Glenn’s turn didn’t come up, and Mainieri didn’t need to call on primary setup man Joey Bourgeois or Brent Bonvillain, who had provided strong starts the previous two Sundays.

And after kicking the ball around Alex Box Stadium in the regional round, the Tigers looked more like the top-flight defensive team they had been all season against the Sooners. The only miscue was catcher Ty Ross’ throwing error — his first of the season — on a stolen base Saturday.

Raph Rhymes made a leaping catch against the wall in left field with a runner on to end the seventh with LSU holding a three-run lead. Shortstop Alex Bregman and third baseman Christian Ibarra made slick plays after being the primary culprits in the defensive breakdowns a week earlier.

“I thought our defense this whole weekend was suffocating for Oklahoma’s offense,” Mainieri said. “They must have felt like they were playing against 12 or 13 players.”