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June 3, 2014

Toughest decision in baseball leads to LSU Iosses

LSU's baseball season came to an abrupt end Monday night.

Just 24 hours earlier, things were progressing quite well for the Tigers. Needing one victory to wrap up the regional title, LSU had a 4-0 lead after seven innings against Houston.

Kyle Bouman had given the Tigers six shutout innings in which he allowed just two hits. The game was now in the hands of the bullpen. Kurt McCune, who had thrown a scoreless seventh, was back on the mound in the eighth. Then, there was closer Joe Broussard for the ninth.

However, LSU couldn't seal the seal. McCune and Nate Fury gave up two-run singles in the eighth which permitted the Cougars to tie the score. Then, Broussard was tagged for three consecutive two-out hits in the 11th which enabled Houston to stay alive with a 5-4 victory.

The deciding game of the regional was effectively over fairly quickly. Freshmen pitchers Alden Cartwright and Parker Bugg were not up the task of a title game. Cartwright didn't get an out in the first inning. Bugg gave the Tigers two pretty good innings before falling apart in the third.

Houston jumped on Brady Domangue, who had not made an appearance on the mound for almost a month. He faced five batters and got no one out. Three of the five hitters collected singles which knocked in a combined total of five runs.

By, the end of the third inning, LSU trailed 9-2. Game over. Tournament over. Season over.

An old baseball axiom is that major league baseball managers normally get fired because of their misuse of the bullpen. Tigers coach Paul Mainieri had a good reason for a couple of pitching changes in the last two games of the Baton Rouge regional. However, both decisions failed.

After six innings Sunday, LSU had a 1-0 lead. Bouman was cruising as he had thrown fewer than 65 pitches. But, Mainieri opted to lift Bouman after the sixth. The strategy was sound.

Bouman had not thrown more than six innings in three months. He had never been involved in this type of late-game pressurized situation. So, Mainieri went to McCune, who had thrown well over the past two weeks - including a save against Florida in the Southeastern Conference tournament title game.

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Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn simply went with the formula which had worked throughout the season in games started by Jared Poche or Bouman. Hope for six solid innings and turn the game over to the bullpen. Unfortunately, the plan didn't succeed Sunday.

Helped by an unorthodox double play on a bunt, McCune kept the Cougars off the board in the seventh. But, McCune was called for obstruction on a ground ball up the first base line and gave up three singles to start the eighth. The third hit drove in two runs.

Mainieri then went to lefty Zac Person to retire the lefthanded hitting Casey Grayson. That strategy was successful as Grayson grounded out. But, righthander Nate Fury couldn't get out righthanded batter Caleb Barker, whose two-run single tied the score.

With the score tied, Broussard started the ninth. He threw 2.2 shutout innings before yielding three straight hits in the 11th inning. With the Tigers batters doing nothing against Houston closer Chase Wellbrock, LSU found itself in a winner-take-all game Monday.

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Mainieri had a quick hook, and rightfully so, in the deciding game. He lifted Cartwright after three batters. Bugg limited the first-inning damage to two runs, so the score was tied after one inning.

However, Bugg couldn't get out of the third inning. A hit batter, the second of the inning, with the bases loaded and one out put the Cougars ahead for good. Then, came a strange choice of relievers by Mainieri. He selected Domangue, who had been a forgotten man in the bullpen.

Domangue showed why he had not been used in the previous month. He allowed a two hits on either side of an intentional walk. By the time Domangue was replaced, the Tigers trailed 8-2. By the time Fury got the final out, the LSU deficit was seven runs at 9-2.

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So, why did Mainieri go to Domangue? He hinted at the plan following the game. Mainieri and Dunn wanted to save their best relief pitchers for the final four innings. Mainieri was hoping to get five innings out of Cartwright and Bugg. Those two freshmen failed to deliver the necessary innings.

So, the next man up was Domangue because Mainieri didn't want to use one of his better relievers so early in the game. That decision was a mistake. It was pretty obvious that Houston had an opportunity to break open the game in the third.

Mainieri probably should have gone to one of his top relief pitchers at that time to keep the game close. But, that strategy was not in place. Domangue got the call and the Cougars did break the game wide open.

Now, no one probably thought that Fury was going to throw four scoreless innings. But, Fury was probably the best option for Mainieri to get out of that third inning with the Tigers still in the game.

However, the LSU coaches were hoping to get to the sixth before using the top of the line relievers. That delay led to the game being over by the end of the third inning.

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There were two rare happenings at The Box on Sunday and Monday. In the Tigers' NCAA tournament history, they had blown a lead after seven innings only four times - twice in regionals and twice in the College World Series. No. 5 came Sunday.

Then, in LSU's storied NCAA tournament history, it had only failed to advance three times when needing one victory in two games - twice in super-regionals and once in the College World Series. No. 4 came Monday.

For just the fourth time, the Tigers did not win a home regional. Houston joined Fullerton State (1992, 1995) and Rice (2005) as teams who have dogpiled on LSU's home field.

As was written here last week, Mainieri did perhaps his best coaching job this season - regardless of what happened in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers had just two All-SEC players - Aaron Nola and Alex Bregman. Nola and Broussard will be the only high picks in this week's major league draft.

The 2012 LSU team should have beaten Stony Brook in the super-regional series. The 2013 Tigers team should have won at least a couple of games in the College World Series. But, this 2014 LSU squad performed as expected - having its season end in the regionals.

The manner in which the two losses occurred was quite disappointing. Undoubtedly, Mainieri will think over and over about his pitching changes, particularly the choice of Domangue. Still, the 2014 season can't be considered a bad one for Tigers baseball.


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