Not able to ‘Get Out’ makes Mainieri ‘Scream’
You ever wonder what keeps a coach awake all night?
OK, sometimes, it might be as simple as the dog next door barking its fool head off all night.
But for this exercise we’re talking more about that uneasy tossing and turning all night, unable to get something out of your mind, a haunting relentless insomnia.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri has had more than his share this season.
Last Saturday night was one of the more fitful episodes.
You try to count sheep, no good. All you can see is another arm coming out of the bullpen, without a clue as to the adventures that might be in store.
It’s been an ongoing horror story this season, by now almost as predictable — cue up the creepy music — as when the B-movie teenagers tiptoe past the chain saws and down the creaky stairway into the dark, dank basement.
For the struggling Tigers, even in victory this SEC season, it seems they manage to give the final inning more hold-your-breath moments than any script calls for.
Saturday was the all-timer.
If the Tigers, 4-11 in the SEC, never get things turned around this season, getting swept in that doubleheader by South Carolina will be the point of no return.
And for all the world it was looking like a possible season turnaround. LSU played its best all-around game of the season Thursday in a 5-1 win and got rained out Friday.
That set up, by silly SEC rule, two seven-inning games Saturday — advantage LSU, which could at least skip the shaky middle parts of its bullpen and go straight to taking its chances with feast-or-famine closer Devin Fontenot.
After another excellent start from A.J. Labas to take a 2-0 lead into the top of the seventh and final inning, LSU was two outs from clinching the series against the No. 11 Gamecocks.
Instead, Fontenot got the call and … crank up the chain saws.
Two doubles sandwiched around a hit batsman and — just like that — South Carolina suddenly led and won 4-2. The second game was forgone anti-climatic, a 9-0 loss.
“Did everything right for almost two games,” Mainieri said. “Played about as well as we could play. Two outs away from a great win on Saturday — just couldn’t get the last two outs.”
But it wasn’t the bullpen or even its final-inning little house of horrors that had Mainieri tossing and turning that night.
He brought in his closer. Logical move. He figured Fontenot was trying his best to get them out.
But as he stared at the bedroom ceiling that night, he kept going back to the bottom of the previous inning, when the Tigers had a chance to tack on at least one insurance run.
First and third one out. Left-hander Tré Morgan up.
The average fan doesn’t know what’s going in the dugout in moments like those. Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek.
“As clutch a hitter as we’ve had,” Mainieri said of Morgan. “Hits a lot of balls to the opposite (left) field. He’s a walking sacrifice fly waiting to happen for us.”
Perfect scenario, right?
One problem. The wind was blowing at a pretty brisk clip, straight in from left field. A fly ball that would normally get the run home might become a harmless pop-up.
So Mainieri said he thought about putting on the hit-and-run. Encourage Morgan to “get on top of the pitch and hit a ground ball in the infield.
“By starting the runner I can stay out of the double play and have the runner on third go on contact. That gets the third run.”
They even have signs for that.
But there was another variable to process.
“The pitcher is just a little bit wild,” Mainieri had noticed.
Worse, “He’s been wild up in the zone. If he throws a pitch neck high, Tré can’t get on top of that pitch because it’s going to be 94 mph.
“So I hesitate.”
Mainieri played it straight, Morgan hit the ball fairly well, but right up into the jet stream that turned it into an easy fly ball, too short to tag up on.
“It’s not the kid’s fault,” Mainieri said. “I’m mad at myself for not having the guts to put on a hit-and-run play … I should have had the courage to put the play on and take our chances. It would have been a risky play but sometimes you have to take chances in order to win the game.”
The astute mathematician will note that, the way it played out, a third run would still be a 4-3 loss, maybe even more heartbreaking.
But as he tossed and turned and mostly second-guessed himself well into Sunday morning, Mainieri knew that there’s a big difference in a 2-0 lead and a 3-0 lead.
For one thing maybe he leaves Labas in at least another batter. South Carolina’s approach no doubt would have been different.
“Who knows how it would have played out … if we get that third run right there?” Mainieri said. “Maybe we hold on to that lead there in the seventh inning.”
Instead, predictably enough, a golden opportunity was blown and the second game was a nightmare from start to finish.
“It’s a cruel game,” Mainieri said.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU
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