Roar restored: Mitchell sparks LSU to sixth College World Series title
LSU pounded Texas 11-4 in Game 3 of the CWS for its sixth national title
As always, the catalyst for LSU was Jared Mitchell, the tournament's MOP
Coach Paul Mainieri gambled on a lineup change -- and it paid off nicely
OMAHA, Neb. -- The championship trophy appeared behind the Rosenblatt Stadium backstop with LSU still needing three outs to claim it, but with a seven-run lead the bold Tigers fans in the first few rows starting snapping photos of the soon-to-be Baton Rouge-bound hardware.
Then, the fans readied their cameras again, as Louis Coleman struck out the side and the LSU pitcher who, like his senior teammates missed the university's graduation ceremony because of a baseball conflict, led the team in a time-honored commencement tradition.
Only instead of a mortarboard, Coleman chucked his glove some 20-feet high before his catcher, Micah Gibbs, tackled him in front of the mound and the less traditional graduation tradition of a mosh pit ensued. And Coleman's glove quickly became an afterthought as the Tigers celebrated their sixth national championship, besting Texas 11-4 Wednesday night to take the College World Series final two games to one.
"I don't care," the jubilant SEC Pitcher of the Year said. "I hope I lost it."
As always, the offensive catalyst for LSU was junior right-fielder Jared Mitchell, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. After taking a changeup on the inner half of the plate for a strike early in his first-inning at bat, Mitchell hoped he'd see the pitch again. It came on a 2-2 count, and after a ferocious cut, the ball landed well beyond the right-field fence, seemingly halfway to the zoo across the street, giving the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
The mostly LSU partisan bleachers roared for an unorthodox mid-inning curtain call, but Mitchell was happy to acknowledge the fans' insatiable appetite for recognition with a wave of his cap. The fans realized that, win or lose, this likely would be the last time Mitchell, a first-round pick of the White Sox, would put on a Tigers uniform.
Significant credit for the first inning goes to LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who gambled on a new lineup in the deciding game. His normal cleanup hitter, Gibbs, hadn't hit for any pop in the finals, so he was dropped to seventh while first baseman Sean Ochinko took his place and Mitchell moved up one spot to fifth. As a result, Ochinko singled to set up the two-on, two-out situation for Mitchell, who wouldn't have been at bat if not for the lineup shuffle. Ochinko finished the evening 4-for-5 with a home run and three RBIs.
"It was pretty obvious that Texas made up its mind that they weren't going to let [No. 3 batter] Blake Dean beat them and Micah had been struggling [hitting] left-handed, so I wanted to get Blake some more protection," Mainieri said.
It was a shrewd move by the career coach, whose father was a national junior college champion coach at Miami-Dade North, and who drew high praise from LSU's dean of baseball as the Tigers tied Texas for second all time with six College World Series championships (USC has 12).
"This is easily as good as any team I ever had," said legendary former coach Skip Bertman, who led LSU to its first five titles, all between 1991 and 2000. "Paul is one of the better coaches in the United States. Had he had a warm-weather school, he'd be a great coach with many national championships."
After stepping down as coach, Bertman became LSU's athletic director. A few years later, he hired Mainieri, who previously had excelled at Notre Dame and Air Force.
Mainieri successfully manipulated his rotation in Omaha so that one of his co-aces would be starting the deciding Game 3 on four days rest. But LSU's power-pitching sophomore Anthony Ranaudo, who admitted after the game that he didn't have his best stuff, was good, but not great. He labored through a 43-pitch, four-walk third inning in which Texas scored two runs and again faltered in the fifth, when a two-run Kevin Keyes homer tied the game at four. The momentum was squarely back on UT's side, but Mitchell was leading off the top of the sixth for LSU.
"I said to myself, Do something to spark this team," Mitchell recalled after the game. "Get on base and score a run."
He took five straight curveballs from Longhorns reliever Brandon Workman to work the count full, fouled off a 94-mile-per-hour fastball and then took another fastball inside to work the walk. Then Mitchell's speed worried Texas enough that Workman threw a pitchout which his distracted catcher, Cameron Rupp, dropped for a passed ball. With Mitchell dancing off second, his teammate Mikie Mahtook saw a good pitch and doubled him home, starting a five-run inning that put the game away. Many of the 19,986 in attendance -- part of a CWS record 336,076 fans that attended the 15 games in Omaha -- continued with their ubiquitous chants of "L-S-U! L-S-U!"
Mitchell will almost certainly sign with the White Sox this summer, bringing to an end a journey to the major leagues that began when he first caught the eye of a scout as a high school freshman. The scout visited Westgate High in New Iberia, La., to see some of his older teammates but was immediately impressed with the young outfielder. This spring Baseball America bestowed upon Mitchell the labels of Best Athlete and Fastest Runner, among draft-eligible college players, but one coach from a school that played LSU in the second-half of the season had high praise for more his hitting ability even more so than his raw tools.
"He's already a major league hitter," the coach said of Mitchell, who batted .327 this season, with a .470 on-base percentage, .580 slugging, 11 home runs, 50 RBIs, 64 runs and 35 stolen bases.
That coach also noted, from playing the Tigers and watching three more of their games on tape, how serious of a competitor Mitchell seemed on the field. He never saw Mitchell smile.
But that was the attitude adopted by the whole team before Game 3. At 3:45 p.m., a little less than two and a half hours away from the first pitch, a few dozen fans roaming the concourse outside the main entrance to Rosenblatt Stadium were treated to a curious procession. While the Texas team was already working out on the field, the LSU bus -- a local rental, but appropriately purple nevertheless -- parked on the first-base side of the park, so the Tigers, already in full uniform, slowly marched over to the player entrance on the third-base side.
For the most part, it was a quiet walk, ignoring the casual transactions of the secondary ticket market (one man's t-shirt had "I Need Tickets" printed right on it), though a few fans' requests for high-fives were obliged and reliever Chad Jones politely posed for a picture after a fan pointed her camera at him.
Inside the park, LSU was similarly motivated. Heck, reliever Ryan Byrd made a diving catch in the outfield during batting practice.
"Everyone always says their goal is to win a national championship," Mitchell said, "but before the season we sat down, looked at our team and realistically said we have what it takes -- and more -- to win the national championship."
The bullpen, which had been a weak link earlier in LSU's season, was no such problem in the CWS final. The relievers threw five scoreless, no-hit to finish the Tigers' win in Game 1 and added 3 2/3 more shutout innings of one-hit ball to finish Game 3. Of course, the last two innings were pitched by the right arm of normal starter Coleman, but it was Jones' 1 2/3 innings that were more crucial, helping Ranaudo retire the side in the bottom of the sixth, keeping the Longhorns off the scorebard after LSU's big inning.
After UT's Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Brandon Belt and Russell Moldenhauer, both struck out looking on curveballs, Jones, often a bit more excitable than his teammates, sprinted off the field like he was running the 40-yard dash. His teammates moved in front of the dugout to greet him, but the lucky ones reconsidered, after Jones delivered at least four flying chestbumps. That sort of thing can hurt when delivered by one of LSU football's starting safeties.
With the win Jones and Mitchell, a wide receiver, became the first two players to win a BCS football championship and a College World Series. His business complete, Mitchell was all smiles after the game.
"If there's a better way [to end a career]," he said, "write the story for me."
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