Perfect Finish For The Box

by Scooter Hobbs 6/10/2008

BATON ROUGE — By the time Alex Box Stadium’s time was up, LSU fans could look down and say: It looked just like her.

Sounded just like her, too — with chants of “Oh-Ma-HA! ... Oh-Ma-HA!” filling the final hot, humid night.

And she always looked best when Mardi Gras beads were raining down.

The old stadium went out in style Monday night, reprising one last LSU victory lap on the way to the College World Series, with senior Michael Hollander leading the way.

After needing ninth-inning heroics a day earlier just to force Monday’s deciding game, the Tigers picked up right where they left off, jumping on Cal-Irvine for five runs before the Anteaters recorded an out and coasting to a 21-7 victory to earn their 14th trip to Omaha, but the first in four years.

“There was no way we were going to let you down tonight,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri told the ecsatic crowd.

If the final score looked like it would be more at home on Tiger Stadium’s football scoreboard across the street, it brought back memories of when the CWS trips were routine.

LSU slugged seven home runs, including three straight in the decisive first inning and at one point led 16-2 before emptying the bench.

“They put a world-class beating on us,” said UCI head coach Mike Gillespie.

Most of the largest crowd in the stadium’s 70-year history stuck around to the end for the traditional Omaha send-off, as the Tigers, at one point a longshot to even make the SEC tournament, did a final conga line around the stadium perimeter to high-five with fans and exchange Mardi Gras beads.

“There was no other way we could send this stadium out,” Mainieri said. “That was a good team we beat. But it would not have mattered who we played today.”

Nor did he and the Tigers put them through any of the anxiety of the previous day, when LSU had to score five runs in the ninth to force the decisive third game.

Ryan Schimpf had two of the home runs among his four hits and Blake Dean went 5-for-5, including the two-run homer in the first that started the onslaught.

“I can tell you a few of my hits were kind of cheap,” said Dean.

The first, however, was a bomb that soared out toward Nicholson Drive beyond right field.

“Everyone was on their feet, loud as usual,” Dean recalled. “I guess I had to get a hit right there.”

Micah Gibbs and Matt Clark followed Dean with shots over the left field wall and a 5-0 LSU lead without an out recorded against them.

“Back-to-back-to-back in the first inning,” Mainieri said. “You just don’t see that much. It sent the message that we meant business and nothing was going to stand in our way.”

And the rout was on.

UCI starter Bryce Stowell, the MVP last week when the Anteaters won the Lincoln, Neb., regional, lasted only two-thirds of an inning.

“The way the crowd was it wasn’t easy,” UCI catcher Aaron Lowenstein said. “I tried to calm him down, it just didn’t work today.

“You have to tip your hat to LSU.

LSU eventually batted around and added another run before the first inning was over for a 6-0 lead, added three more over the next two innings, then delivered the knockout punch with a 7-run fifth and a 16-2 lead.

“LSU ran that six-spot up out there in the first inning and literally took our starter out of the game,” Gillespie said. “If we were going to be able to contend, we had to have him go deep into the game.

“It clearly had a dramatic effect on us.”

Stowell was charged with six runs — five earned — on five hits during his brief start, and the normally sure-fingered Anteaters also committed two errors in the inning.

“It really put them out of their game,” said Gibbs of UCI, a team that prefers the small-ball theory of manufacturing runs. “We needed to jump on them early.”

LSU starter Blake Martin set the tone for UCI by retiring the Anteaters in order in the first and second innings.

“That was huge,” Mainieri said. “Blake getting them up and down in the order in the top of the inning. He set the tone.”

Schimpf, who had home runs in the fifth and seventh innings, ended the game with five RBI while going 4-for-5.

Schimpf, Dean and Micah Gibbs also had two doubles apiece, while reserves Buzzy Haydel and Johnny Dishon had home runs after Mainieri flooded the boxscore with backup players in the final innings.

The game lasted right at four hours, most of which was spent waiting on the inevitable postgame celebration.

“I’ve been waiting to say this for so long,” Mainieri said when it was finally out. “Omaha, here come the Tigers.”