BATON ROUGE, La. — When the LSU baseball team rallied to beat Arkansas last weekend, plausible explanation flew out the window.
For the second straight year, the Tigers were left for dead against the Razorbacks before turning the tables for a stunning victory. Last season’s rally sparked the Tigers out of a 2-4 skid. They’d win 11 straight, in the process giving birth to the Rally Possum phenomenon honoring the animal that wandered onto the field to delay that infamous Arkansas game prior to the comeback.
But there was no possum to be found in Fayetteville. Not even on the tailgate menu. So how did the Tigers pull this one off?
“Maybe the spirit of that marsupial is still with us,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri suggested.
Possible. But as it turns out, the Tigers have something more clever than an animal that feigns its own death to ward off predators: senior second baseman Cole Freeman.
Making things happen
It looked like it was over. The Tigers had rallied beautifully from an 8-1 deficit, but still trailed by a run with two outs in the ninth when Kramer Robertson hit a routine grounder to short.
Jax Biggers, as sure-handed a shortstop as there is in the SEC, fielded the ball cleanly. But his throw flew well over the first baseman’s head, allowing the trying and go-ahead runs to score. It was his first throwing error all year. And upon further review, there may have been pretty good reason why that happened.
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Freeman, stationed at second, jumped over Robertson’s ground ball, in the process violating one of the most simple concepts of baserunning.
“Cole did what he is not coached to do, which is jump over the ball,” Mainieri said. “You wait and let it go.”
No less a player than Alex Bregman was burned that way in his LSU career, once getting hit in the foot by a grounder for the third out in an extra-inning game against Kentucky that went from would-be win to an eventual loss.
Freeman knew about the Bregman incident. But that didn’t stop him from rolling the dice and intentionally hopping over the ball in hopes the unorthodox maneuver would mess with Biggers.
“Our rule is don’t jump over it. Because if it hits you like it did Bregman against Kentucky, the game’s over. But I just took a chance,” Freeman said. “That’s routine for a sure-handed shortstop. I’ll try to throw off the timing. I jumped pretty high to make sure I was over it. I just wanted to do something to make sure I was throwing him off. I don’t know if it did or didn’t. I’m just glad it worked out for us.”
As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Had Biggers fielded and thrown the ball cleanly, the Tigers would have reeled to their third consecutive SEC series loss. It’s quite conceivable that the Hogs would have finished off the series with a sweep to drop LSU to 5-7 in league play.
Instead, all that hand-wringing was avoided with a little leap.
“It’s just something I thought was our best opportunity,” Freeman said. “If that jumps up and hits me, I’m going to take a big beating from the media and coaches and maybe some players too, saying ‘That’s a cardinal sin.’”
It wasn’t a complete gamble. As a career infielder, Freeman has a good eye for how a ball comes off the bat and what it will do when it hits the ground.
“Maybe if it was a little more bouncy I wouldn’t have (done it),” he said. “But I knew I was by the front of the dirt and if it laid down in the grass, not many hops were going to happen.
“I don’t know if someone thinks about that if they’re not an infielder. I think it’s an infielder’s mentality knowing how much that throws off your timing… Infielders hate it when anyone gets in front of them. Even an umpire. When I’ve got the umpire right to my right, it’s difficult.”
Freeman said his younger teammates are probably better off listening to their coach than following his own example.
“I’m definitely not going to tell someone ‘Hey, do what I did,’” he said. “It’s something you kind of learn.”
Indeed, it is likely that only a veteran with Freeman’s status on the team has the type of respect to explain himself had the ball kicked up a notch and ended the game with a thud off his heel.
“I just kind of weighed the options. If it’s going to jump up and bite me in the ass, I’ll take it,” Freeman said. “But I’m going to do whatever I can to get the ball rolling and help this team.”
With the Tigers back on a three-game winning streak, the next few weeks may reveal whether a Savvy Freeman is a better talisman than a Rally Possum.