In baseball, even the most innocuous moments can have major ramifications. And for LSU in the College World Series, there were almost too many of those moments to count — a proverbial death by a thousand paper cuts.
Here are three specific moments that loom largest after the Tigers fell short of their seventh national championship at the hands of hated Florida in a 6-1 loss in Game 2 of the CWS on Tuesday.
1. LSU coach Paul Mainieri sticks with Russell Reynolds a second time through the order in Game 1
Russell Reynolds was in a position where he would never again have to purchase a beverage in Baton Rouge.
In 3 innings, the little-used senior stop-gap starter managed to face the minimum against Florida. But for any reliever, the second time through the order is usually a bear — which is why you rarely have an offense bat a second time against one. And Reynolds, with 14.2 innings to his name leading up to Game 1, is very much a relief pitcher.
It’s understandable why Paul Mainieri got greedy and sent Reynolds back out for the fourth inning. How could you not love what the kid was doing? But sometimes to love is to let go, and in this instance Mainieri should have left Reynolds in the dugout after a heck of a performance and gone all-in on the “Johnny Wholestaff” approach.
“I thought Russell did a great job for 3 innings and I just tried to be a little bit greedy there to get one more out of him,” Mainieri said afterwards.
Indeed, things got out of hand quickly.
Reynolds retired the first man he saw in the fourth before walking the bases loaded and departing. There was no way to see that loss of control coming, but Reynolds hadn’t thrown more than 3 innings all year. Putting him back on the hill offered more risk than reward.
Despite that decision, and the Game 1 loss, LSU was still in a position to win the series. Except…
2. Nick Coomes’ second error in Game 2
Baseball can be cruel sometimes. Defeat is never any one person’s fault — unless a pitcher gets absolutely tattooed, that is — but mistakes have a way of being noticed a lot more than they are in other sports.
Just ask Bill Buckner, who was known for one mistake for decades rather than his years of hitting success. LSU first baseman Nick Coomes was in similar company in Game 2.
He opened the game in the worst way imaginable, allowing Florida’s leadoff man to reach with an error on the first play. That run would score, but a 1-0 deficit is no big deal — LSU needed a run if it was going to win, anyhow.
It was Coomes’ second error that was far more costly.
With two outs in the second, Florida’s Nick Horvath was dead to rights on a Jared Poché pickoff attempt. But Coomes dropped the ball, not only eliminating the sure out but allowing Horvath to advance to second. He scored on the ensuing Deacon Liput single up the middle.
Coomes was benched for Jake Slaughter after his errors, which leads us to…
3. Mike Papierski swings away/Jake Slaughter’s slide in Game 2
The cruelty never ended for LSU in the championship series.
Putting Slaughter in the game was the right move, and perhaps he should have started in the first place. But he ended up making a very freshman mistake that wiped the would-be tying run off the scoreboard and changed the game’s complexion.
When Slaughter singled in the seventh, LSU had runners at the corners, no one out and a 2-1 deficit with Mike Papierski coming to the plate. Everything was set up perfectly for the Tigers.
Certainly the situation was ripe for a squeeze play. Papierski successfully laid down 8 sacrifice bunts this year — second-most on the team. If he does it there, LSU ties the game and moves Slaughter into scoring position.
But he was also LSU’s hottest bat in Omaha, so Mainieri instead had him swing away. The normally-patient Papierski swung at the first pitch, leading to a double play. Not ideal, but even that outcome scores the tying run. Except for the one freak thing that actually happened.
Slaughter slid out of the basepath to take out Florida shortstop Dalton Guthrie. Replay showed no ifs, ands or buts about it.
No question. Correct call. Takes a lot of guts to make that decision by an umpire in that spot. They deserve credit for getting it right. pic.twitter.com/A5hukQrIhI
— Ryan Brauninger (@R_Brauninger) June 28, 2017
By rule, no one can advance on interference. Not even the guy on third base who would have scored anyway.
The whole series of events leading to the play is a frustrating one. If Coomes hadn’t struggled in the field, perhaps the junior is in that position and doesn’t make that mistake sliding. If Mainieri calls a squeeze, Slaughter is likely standing on second base with one out and Kramer Robertson on deck.
There were many more moments that resulted in Florida winning the national championship, but when LSU fans look back at the 2017 College World Series, the above three moments likely will stick out the most.