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Florida and Louisiana State face off in college baseball finals

Two schools remain to decide 71st annual College Baseball Division I World Series when 3rd seeded Florida meets up with 4th seeded Louisiana State in the best-of-three finals at TD Ameritrade Park

All SEC match-up first pitch is Monday night in Omaha, Neb., with the Tigers seeking their seventh national baseball championship and the Gators their first  

Arnie Leshin

By Arnie Leshin

While top-ranked Oregon State is disappointedly heading home, Louisiana State surged out of the loser’s bracket and continuously survived the brink of elimination to crash the best-of-three NCAA College Baseball World Series finals in Omaha, Neb.

The Bayou Tigers (51-18) didn’t just defeat the Beavers back-to-back, they dominated in every phase of the game. Friday afternoon, they held hard-hitting Oregon State to only two hits in handing it is first loss, 3-1, since April 29 and snapping its 23-game win streak.

Not much changed in Saturday afternoon’s 6-1 triumph that sent the Beavers home with an impressive 56-7 record, yet denied them a berth in the finals.

They could piece together only three hits this time and fell victim again to LSU’s stellar pitching, timely hitting, sharp fielding, and its resilience.

Holding the No. 1 team in the land to only two runs and five hits in the two games was quite a task as it capped off four-straight victories. It was a disappointing exit for an Oregon State team that won the Pac-12 and entered the 64-school field as the team to beat.

Now while the Beavers traveled home, there are only two schools — LSU and Florida — left in quest of a national championship. The Bayou Tigers have won it six times, but always at Rosenblatt Stadium, the last coming in 2009 over Texas. Two years later, the site became the brand-new TD Ameritrade Park.

Meanwhile, Florida turned back the challenge of 6th seeded Texas Christian, 3-0, Saturday night, identical to the score when the teams met in game one of the World Series. But on Friday night, the Horned Frogs did as LSU did in the afternoon, charging out of the loser’s bracket to sink the Gators, 9-2, and make for both deciding games to be played Saturday. The Tigers’ 3-1 win assured them another game, and they took advantage of it by winning 19 of their last 20 starts after coming away with 16-straight triumphs.

Friday, it was the pitching of right-handed starter Alex Lange and righty reliever Zack Hess. Saturday, it was the hurling of right-handed starter Caleb Gilbert and again it was Hess out of the bullpen to send the huge LSU crowd into a wild celebration after he saved another one.

It was also another capacity crowd, another beautiful sunny day, and another big day for the Purple and Gold. It had lost its lone game here to Oregon State, but avenged this twice.

For hitting heroics, credit switch hitting catcher Michael Papierski. The junior clouted a 3-run home run to right-center field in the second inning off of Beavers’ starting right-hander Bryce Fehmel while batting from the left side, and then returned in the fourth to swing from the from the right side against southpaw reliever Brandon Eisert and hit a solo shot into the left field seats for his fourth RBI.

Beau Jordan, the designated hitter, hit a solo for the Tigers, as did left fielder Antoine Duplantis. LSU came away with seven hits and played errorless ball, as did Oregon State.

But the three home runs were more than enough for Gilbert and Hess. Gilbert (7-1) went 8 ¾ innings, made 97 pitches, struck out seven and walked one. He allowed the three Beaver runs, one coming on a solo home run from Michael Gretier in the top of the seventh. Hess needed only 13 pitches in 1.2 innings, striking out two and walking one.

“It’s a surreal feeling,” Gilbert said, “to pitch for your team with its backs against the wall in the deciding game.”  LSU head coach Paul Maineri had nothing but praise for his players. He won the last Tiger title, and now seeks its seventh, which would put the program at No. 3 in all-time World Series behind Southern California and Texas.

But for now, he’ll be checking out his opponent in game two.

“This is an amazing bunch of kids, and I’m very proud of them.” he said. “Resilient is what they are, no quit, just showing up to play and now they’ve gotten us in the finals with two-straight wins against a very good opponent. I can’t say I expected it, but I’m not surprised.”

The Gators against put their stellar pitching staff on display, with their ace right-hander Alex Faedo (9-2) dominating TCU for a second-straight time. He pitched 3-hit ball for seven 7 1/3 scoreless innings while striking out 11 to set up the all-SEC final. Sophomore righty Michael Byrne came on for his 18th save.

These teams met once during the regular season in Gainesville, with Florida taking 2-of-3 by winning 1-0, losing 10-6, and then winning 8-1.

The Gators have never won the national baseball title, but have been in two finals, losing in 2011 to South Carolina, and in 2005 to Texas. LSU hoisted the championship trophy in 2009, 2000, 1997, 1996, 1993 and 1991, and have never lost in the finals.

But the Tigers figure to have a tough task versus pitching-strong Florida, and they found that out when the teams played in late March. Along with Faedo, the Gators can call on Jackson Kowar, Byrne, Tyler Dyson and Nate Brown. They enter the finals with their earned-run-average among the best in the land, but Faedo, unless it’s in relief, will not be starting again.

But LSU has proven it is very capable of shutting teams down behind the likes of Caleb Gilbert, Zack Hess, Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Todd Peterson. It also has a well-balanced lineup that can hit the long ball and come through with timely hits to go with a solid defense. Lange, its best hurler, threw on Friday.

There’s the junior switch-hitting catcher Papierski, freshman third baseman Josh Smith, senior shortstop Kramer Robertson, junior outfielder Greg Deichmann, sophomore outfielder Antoine Duplantis, and second baseball Mason Templet, a freshman.

The Gators might not be as strong through out the lineup, but they can swing the bat, hit the long ball, swipe bases, take the extra base, and play defense.

Their top hitters have been sophomore third baseman Jonathan India, junior left fielder Nick Horvath, freshman first baseman Garrett Milchin, Junior catcher JJ Schwatz, and sophomore outfielder Nelson Maldonado, who has been playing with a shoulder injury and has trouble throwing the ball.

Said Florida head coach Michael Sullivan: “I still need to get Nelson’s bat in play, and he can still catch the ball. As for having to send Faedo out there, we needed a win and he is our best, so I couldn’t worry about what’s next when we wanted to make the finals.”

He did, with Faedo doing the clutch pitching and freshman center-fielder Austin Langworthy and junior infielder Christian Hicks driving in all three runs. Hicks doubled in a run in the fifth, tripled in the seventh and scored on a ground out.

Oregon State did the same Friday when it started its ace, undefeated right-hander Jake Thompson, figuring he was its best route to the finals. But he suffered his first defeat in 15 starts, while the Tigers received a splendid start from Lange.

That’s it. From a starting field of 64 schools, it’s down to Florida and LSU in a Southeastern Conference showdown.

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