Rabalais: Even for LSU, home dominance doesn’t last forever

Before his team faced Stanford in the championship game of the 2000 College World Series, then-LSU coach Skip Bertman reflected on how his Tigers had never lost in such a situation.

“The law of averages says we’re going to lose one day. But,” he added, holding up a wizened index finger, “it doesn’t mean we have to lose tomorrow.”

The Tigers didn’t lose that day to Stanford, winning the last of their five national titles under Bertman.

But the old coach was right, as he has been so often in his career.

Nothing lasts forever, not even in baseball, a game in which legend has it that if you keep batting, you’ll never grow old.

For LSU fans, watching their Tigers advance from regional after regional year after year never grows old. Fifteen times over nearly three decades they watched LSU open regionals 2-0 and ultimately advance, either reaching the College World Series or a super regional.

But eventually everyone makes the third out. Forever, even for a program like LSU, is a myth. The law of averages is an absolute. And it caught up with the Tigers vengefully Monday night in an epic 12-2 loss to the Houston Cougars.

LSU appeared well on its way to a regional wrap-up win Sunday night, one hand around a super regional bid while the other hand was blowing kisses to the adoring throng in Alex Box Stadium with a 4-0 lead after seven innings.

But somebody forgot to tell the Cougars they were sacrificial lambs. They fought back with four runs in the top of the eighth on their way to a 5-4, 11-inning victory that made Monday’s “if-necessary” game necessary.

LSU players like Alex Bregman and Tyler Moore said all the right things about the Tigers flushing away their bitter disappointment from Sunday night and starting anew with Monday’s game.

But there was scar tissue left over from that loss. Had to be. Many will focus on the ugly nature of Monday’s defeat, the Tigers’ worst in a regional since being eliminated 11-0 by Cal State Fullerton in 1992.

But Sunday night was when LSU lost this regional, when LSU coach Paul Mainieri decided to pull Kyle Bouman after six innings when he was dealing a two-hit shutout and had only thrown 64 pitches and his bullpen unraveled.

The Cougars rocked the Tigers relievers, namely Kurt McCune and closer Joe Broussard, en route to their stunning comeback. You could hear the air escaping from the LSU dugout after that, and there was nothing Mainieri or his Tigers could do Monday to mend that ripped seam.

It takes more than 24 hours to repair damage like that, especially with this much at stake. This much pressure. This much tradition to uphold.

Still, all started well Monday for LSU. The Tigers came out swinging aggressively in the top of the first inning as the visiting team and grabbed a 2-0 lead.

But Houston quickly counter-punched, chasing LSU starter Alden Cartwright from Runnels — he who promised a Tigers win a night earlier — to tie the score at 2. Cartwright never had it, pulled after facing three batters who all reached base — his long, haunted offseason unfortunately for him starting early.

The rest of his LSU teammates won’t feel much better. By Tigers baseball standards, this was an implosion. The Cougars seven-run third inning was just the ultimate and perhaps inevitable outcome of a chain reaction that started in the fateful eighth Sunday.

Plenty of blame to go around for LSU, but credit is owed Houston for being the tough, gritty opponent it was. The Cougars barely survived Bryant in their Friday opener 3-2 in 10 innings, then got knocked to the losers’ bracket by LSU and Aaron Nola, who at the time didn’t look like he would be making his final appearance as a Tigers pitcher.

That’s what it turned out to be. The Cougars were rated the toughest No. 2 seed coming into the tournament and played like it. They survived the jungle furnace of a Sunday afternoon game to beat Southeastern Louisiana 9-5 — in part because the Lions generously offered up six errors — then came right back and beat back LSU. Strong stuff.

The Cougars looked a lot like Stony Brook from the 2012 Baton Rouge super regional, never giving in despite every opportunity to do so.

That Stony Brook defeat was a tough one for LSU to take. This one won’t be any easier.