Alex Box cliffhanger: FSU ends LSU's season with extra innings win
Florida State coach Mike Martin was 75 years old at the start of Sunday's game two against LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
He probably felt like was 150 by the time the Seminoles’ third baseman Drew Mendoza hit a walk-off RBI single in the 12th inning for a 5-4 win that advanced FSU to the College World Series.
"I'm not going to get teary-eyed," said Martin, who is retiring at season's end after leading the Seminoles to the NCAA tournament in all 40 years of his coaching career. "But I wanted this so bad for our young men."
A 41-21 team that went 7-13 in 20-game stretch this season accomplished a goal of giving Martin his 17th and last trip to the College World Series as a retirement gift.
"I don't think anybody in this room, let alone anybody in this country, would put us in this place right now," said Mendoza, who stroked a 2-2 pitch from gritty LSU reliever Devin Fontenot into right field to score FSU shortstop Mike Salvatore with the game-winning run. "We've always believed in each other."
No one was more relieved than Martin when Mendoza's hit ended a relief pitching duel between LSU's Devin Fontenot and FSU's Antonio Velez, who both saw action for the second consecutive night after each threw 16 pitches in FSU's game one win Saturday.
Fontenot, the second of two Tigers' relievers, threw a career-high 96 pitches, allowing two hits and the game-winning run while striking out 11 of the 22 batters he faced. Velez, FSU's only reliever, threw a four-hit, 4.2 inning shutout in 64 pitches.
"We were doing everything we could to not play tomorrow (Monday)," Martin said. "When he (Velez) got to around 50 (pitches), I was not saying nice words to myself. Here he is pitching lights out baseball and may not be available (for a possible game three). But he was the man we wanted out there."
It took Velez's effort to finally chill LSU's comeback. Just like in Saturday’s game one when LSU coach Paul Mainieri agonizingly watched the Tigers’ 4-0 lead flip in the last four innings to a 6-4 FSU victory, Martin witnessed his team’s 4-1 margin Sunday gradually evaporate.
LSU's only multi-run inning in 21 innings of baseball against the 'Noles, the Tigers' two-run eighth, was fueled by senior right fielder Antoine Duplantis' RBI double and center fielder Zach Watson's RBI game-tying single at 4-4.
"That's what we've been doing all year," said Duplantis, LSU's all-time hit leader who went 4-for-6 in the final game of his college career. "I don't think this team ever quit until the end and that's what made this team special."
Yet, for just the third time in eight Super Regional home series under Mainieri, the road to Omaha ended in the Tigers’ backyard.
But it wasn’t for a lack of heart or effort.
And in some cases, LSU got burned for trying too hard to make things happen. The Tigers left runs on the base paths with base running gaffes.
Designated hitter Giovanni DiGiacomo got picked off third base with one out in the sixth. Center fielder Zach Watson got tagged for the second out in the eighth trying to stretch his game-tying RBI single into a double.
"Watson running into the out was just a hustle play," Mainieri said. "He saw the ball get away from the fielder. I wouldn't call that a base-running mistake.
"I'm going to take the blame for Gio's. I should have yelled out to (third base coach) Nolan (Cain) and to Gio to play it like there's nobody out and not one out. When there's one out, we're going on contact. But because the infield was back, Gio didn't have to be as aggressive as he was showing with his walking lead."
The Tigers came within a couple of feet of taking a lead in the top of the 10th when shortstop Josh Smith belted an 0-1 pitch that left the park but just drifted wide of the foul pole. Also, a towering one-out shot in the 11th by first baseman Cade Beloso settled into FSU right fielder Reese Albert’s glove on the warning track for the second out.
The fact FSU just used two pitchers to capture Sunday's win -- starter CJ Van Eyk threw 115 pitches in 7.1 innings before turning the game over to Velez -- wasn't unusual.
FSU’s Martin trusted his veteran starting arms, as they did last week in winning the Athens Regional, to take the Seminoles as far as the seventh or eighth inning before calling in the bullpen.
LSU’s Mainieri was hoping that freshman Cole Henry and Landon Marceaux, would pitch beyond their years and at least get the Tigers to the fourth or fifth inning when their seasoned-bullpen could take over.
Mainieri’s plans went awry in Saturday’s game one when Henry exited after two scoreless innings with arm problems. FSU rallied against five LSU relievers, pulling into a 4-4 tie on Albert’s game-tying, three-run homer in the seventh, then adding a run each in the eighth and ninth innings.
On Sunday, the Seminoles touched Tigers’ starter Marceaux for four runs in eight hits in 3.2 innings. Relievers Matthew Beck and Fontenot held FSU scoreless for seven straight innings into Mendoza's game-deciding hit.
In the FSU 12th, Fontenot opened the inning by striking out pinch-hitter Nico Baldor. Then, Salvatore cracked a one-out single and advanced to second on Fontenot's wild pitch. After Fontenot struck out Albert, Fontenot was one strike from getting out of the inning when Mendoza slapped the single that sent FSU to Omaha.
"Both teams played their hearts out," Mainieri said. "Both teams didn't want to lose. Congratulations to Florida State. They did a bit more than we did."