OMAHA, Neb. – Deciding when to pull a starting pitcher often leads to second guessing. It’s made tougher when the arm in the other dugout is one of the best in the nation.
LSU faced that dilemma Monday night against SEC rival Florida in the opener of their best-of-three Championship Series of the College World Series. The Tigers, depleted a bit by injury, sent Russell Reynolds, a senior with a 1-1 record and an 8.59 ERA in 14.2 innings, to face the Gators’ Brady Singer, a second-round pick of the Blue Jays who opted to go to college and likely will be among the first pitchers taken in next year’s draft.
Reynolds started strong by tossing three scoreless innings but walked three straight batters with one out in the fourth. All three came around to score – two coming in on a ground-rule two-bagger from Jonathan India – and Florida, behind 12 strikeouts in seven innings from Singer, held on to beat LSU 4-3 before a sellout crowd of 25,679 at TD Ameritrade Park.
“If you would have told me before the game we would get three shutout innings from him to start the game, I would have been pleased,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “I got a little greedy there and tried to get an extra inning out of him, and we still had a long way to go and not a lot of options coming out of the bullpen.
“In hindsight, I probably should have started the inning with [Nick] Bush. I’m sure everybody would have disagreed with that because we had shut them out for three innings.”
Bush entered with the bases loaded and got Austin Langworthy to lift a foul fly down the left-field line. Shortstop Kramer Robertson hauled it in before firing late to home, allowing Dalton Guthrie to score and JJ Schwarz to tag and take third. Nelson Maldonado, seeing no one was covering second, also advanced. India then launched a ball that froze Zach Watson in center and bounced on the warning-track dirt and over the wall for a two-run double and a 3-0 lead.
Scoring three runs off Singer (9-5), who had allowed one hit and struck out five through three innings, seemed like a Sisyphean task. Even more so when the Tigers opened the fourth with singles from Antoine Duplantis (2 for 4, R, RBI) and Greg Deichmann (2 for 4, R) but watched as Singer mixed his low-to-mid 90s fastball and hammer for a slider on both sides of the plate and struck out the side.
“Brady was outstanding,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Obviously that one inning, I think with two runners on with nobody out and struck out the side was huge.”
Added catcher Mike Rivera: “I was trying to slow Brady down, making sure he executed every pitch instead of overthrowing. And he did it, and we got out of the inning.”
Duplantis homered with one out in the sixth to make it 3-1, and LSU had Singer on the ropes when he hit Watson, walked Josh Smith and allowed an RBI single to Beau Jordan. But Singer escaped with his 3-2 lead intact by getting Michael Papierski on a fly to shallow left.
Rivera delivered an RBI single up the middle off Bush, who worked 3.1 effective innings, to score Langworthy, who had doubled and moved up to third on India’s sacrifice bunt.
Singer yielded two more hits in the bottom of the seventh, one coming after Robertson singled and was thrown out at second by Rivera on a ball in the dirt. A double by Deichmann to open the eighth finally chased the sophomore right-hander, whose 12 strikeouts set a record for the most in a CWS final. He also got a number of ugly swings, particularly on his slider to right-handed hitters.
“I felt like I was landing it a lot more for strikes than I usually do,” Singer said. “And two strikes just off the plate, but the slider did feel good.”
Mainieri, predicting Singer will be the first pick in next year’s draft, said, “My feelings are that we went up against who I believe to be maybe the best pitcher I’ve seen in the SEC for an opponent since I’ve been the coach at LSU.”
Michael Byrne entered with Deichmann at second and allowed a liner to center from Smith to make it 4-3. But Nick Horvath, who entered as a pinch-runner in the top of the inning, raced to right-center and fired a strike to nail Smith at second.
“That changed the whole complexion of the ballgame to be honest with you,” O’Sullivan said. “Now they’ve got a runner at second. They’re down a run with one out, and all the momentum is in their favor. And a play like that can just change the whole complexion of a ballgame.”
The Gators, who won their first CWS Championship Series game in five tries, need one more win to claim a national title.
But Tuesday for Florida will resemble Monday for LSU: Freshman Tyler Dyson is expected to start against the Tigers’ Jared Poche’.
“We have a freshman going tomorrow against the winningest pitcher in LSU’s history,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to have to play better.”