It was last season on March 27, 2022 in Gainesville, Florida, and LSU had gotten off to a rapid start at the plate. 11 runs in the first six innings, to be exact. And it came against a star-studded Florida lineup, a lineup that had just handed the Tigers their fourth loss in the last five games in a 7-2 series-opening win on Friday night.
But LSU, even in the hostile road environment, responded with a pair of statement wins by scores of 16-4 and 11-2, taking the series from the Gators, then ranked No. 9 nationally by College Baseball Nation.
“It’s a great accomplishment for our team against a great program,” LSU head coach Jay Johnson remarked after the 11-2 win.
Little did he, or Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan expect that the next time the Gators and Tigers tangled on the diamond, it would not be in a ballpark in the southeast, but rather on college baseball’s biggest stage with a national title on the line in Omaha.
A leaping catch in deep center field by Florida's Michael Robertson, and an extra-innings walk-off homer from LSU’s Tommy White secured spots in the championship series for the SEC powers, who have gone 454 days since their last meeting.
This is not the first time the Tigers and Gators have played for the national title. In 2017, they battled in Omaha in the title series, and Florida pulled away in a pair of wins, claiming the first–and to date, the only—national championship under O’Sullivan, who is in his 16th season at the helm.
Johnson wasn’t in Baton Rouge yet. At that point, Tucson was home for the skipper, who led Arizona to a regional appearance in his second season. It would be four more years before his appointment as head coach of the Tigers.
For 12 of the final 13 weeks of this season, Florida and LSU found themselves amongst the top five CBN’s weekly Top 50 ranking. And they proved it through the postseason, with the Gators fighting elimination–and prevailing–through the final three games of the Gainesville Regional. LSU left no doubt, emerging to Omaha without a postseason loss.
LSU’s road to the championship series
The Tigers easily pulled out wins over Tulane and Oregon State in the first weekend of the tournament, before outsourcing SEC foe Kentucky 20-3 in a pair of Super Regional contests.
But they ran into trouble at the hands of top-seeded Wake Forest on Monday night, as the Demon Deacons edged LSU with unanswered runs in a 3-2 victory, and sent the Tigers to a must-win matchup with, not surprisingly, another SEC opponent—Tennessee.
Nate Ackenhausen rose to the occasion, with six scoreless innings against the Vols. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Auckenzen had never started a game for LSU in 2023, purely serving as a major cog in the bullpen’s success throughout the first 63 games. But when his number was called, he delivered.
“I texted [Jay Johnson] that I would give it all I’ve got,” Ackenhausen said of the call to start.
The pitching strategy for LSU heading into the series against Florida is unclear, though it is likely that Ackenhausen will toe the rubber once more for the Tigers in Omaha, whether it be in a starting role or as a reliever.
The pitching talent played no small role in LSU’s consistent success and 49-15 record leading into the College World Series. There is no better example of that very fact than what played out on Thursday night.
Skenes carried LSU to decisive 2-0 victory
With LSU facing Wake Forest for the third time in the last seven days, and the winner moving onto the championship series, both teams laid down their best hand. No storyline proved bigger than that of the starting pitching matchup, between projected first-round draft picks Rhett Lowder, of Wake, and Paul Skenes, of LSU.
Both pitchers dueled in memorable fashion, and scoring opportunities came few and far between. Johnson called it “the best pitched college baseball game I’ve ever seen.”
With his inning-ending strikeout in the second inning, Skenes etched his name into the record books as the LSU’s single-season strikeout record holder, surpassing LSU great Ben McDonald with 203 strikeouts on the year. The command of the strike zone from both Skenes and Lowder proved vital; Lowder walked just two, and Skenes, one, and through 10 innings, the score was knotted at 0-0.
When Skenes exited in the eighth, Thatcher Hurd stepped up, and fired three more scoreless frames with just one hit in 11 batters faced.
“Obviously what Paul did was spectacular,” Johnson added in the postgame press conference. “What Thatcher [Hurd] did was spectacular. You might see four pitchers that were on that mound tonight, from both teams, that will pitch in major league baseball all-star games.”
“Like coach says all the time, it’s all about execution,” Hurd added. “I was going to do anything to get that win for us. I wasn’t going to let us down.”
Morgan’s run-saving play
Preserving the shutout for LSU ultimately came down to one very narrow play-at-the-plate. So close in fact, that a replay review proved necessary to confirm the call. It happened like this; with Skenes on the hill and runners on first and third with one out, Marek Houston squared around to bunt. The ball was sent towards first base, with Wake’s Justin Johnson barrelling down the third base line.
And in a flash, LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan fielded the bunt and flung it towards home plate. LSU catcher Alex Milazzo applied the tag, and not a moment too soon. Replay showed Johnson, fully outstretched and diving headfirst, being tagged within mere inches of the plate.
“We work on it all the time,” Johnson said of Richardson’s run-saving play .”And I’ll tell you, it was a big benefit who we played to get to this point. When you look at Tulane, you look at Oregon State, you look at Kentucky. That’s three of the best bunting teams in the country. Both going into the regional and super regional, we spent a large amount of time on bunt coverages to both sides, safety squeeze defense.
“We’ve finally been able to get him back over to first base here in the postseason because he’s healthy enough to do it. Nobody has played better in this World Series than Tre’. There hasn’t been a bigger play in this world series than that bunt play.”
Morgan not only made his mark in the field, but also at the plate. He went 2-for-4 in the 5-0 win over Tennessee and scored a run in LSU’s decisive 5-2 win over Wake on Wednesday. His performances have been part of a larger unit of LSU hitters, whose notable power challenges nearly every pitcher the lineup goes up against. The Tigers, with 138 homers on the season, have the second-most of any team in D-I baseball.
Of course, Lowder quieted the LSU bats a great deal on Thursday, and the lone Tigers’ home run came on White’s walk-off to left field in the 11th against closer Camden Minacci. It could be more of the same for the Tigers against Florida, especially if the Gators have their way.
Florida’s pitching is a force to be reckoned with
Though Florida’s 4.48 ERA through ranks seventh in the SEC, the Gators struck out opposing batters at a high rate, with 697 strikeouts, the third-most in a league that sent 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Jac Caglianone headlines the starting rotation, with a team-high 3.68 ERA through 17 starts, and impressively, is also a centerpiece as one of Florida’s top hitters, with a .325 average that goes along nicely with his team-best 31 homers. He delivered 4.1 innings with just one earned run in the 3-2 defeat of TCU on Wednesday, clinching the Gators’ spot in the championship series.
“Jac was really good today,” O’Sullivan commented after the 3-2 win over TCU. “At the end of the day, he bent, but he didn’t break.”
Known for his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame, Caglianone is a force for Florida. A two-way force that is effective no matter if he’s on the mound, or at the plate. But he is not the only key pitcher for this Florida ballclub.
Hurston Waldrep has been right there too, starting 18 games with a 10-3 record and 3.99 ERA. His 154 strikeouts stick out, but more importantly in this postseason, he has held opponents at bay. Even against Oral Roberts in Florida’s second game in Omaha, Waldrep allowed seven hits. But just one run scored, and it proved to be a difference-maker, giving the Gators a 5-4 win, keeping them in the winner’s bracket.
In his previous start at South Carolina, in the super regionals, Waldrep tossed eight innings against SEC rival South Carolina. Try as they might, with their season on the line, the Gamecocks failed to break through, shutout with just three hits off Waldrep.
“He’s been able to make adjustments in-game,” O’Sullivan said of Waldrep. “He’s had the ability to throw his curveball, slider, and split early in the count.
“Through the first half of the year, his split was more of a two-strike pitch, but now he’s been able to slow the ball down. And when people are swinging early in the count like they did, he’s got multiple weapons that he can go to.”
Combining with the bats
That quality starting pitching, especially in the later months of the season, has meshed nicely with the power-studded lineup that allowed Florida to find success at the plate in both the regionals and super regionals. The Gators .544 slugging percentage ranks second in the SEC. No. 1? You probably guessed it: LSU.
Wyatt Langford is the name to know, in addition to Caglione, when it comes to Florida's offensive prowess. He hits for a team-best average of .369, and boasts a .493 on-base percentage. But notably, Langford struggled through his first three games in Omaha, going 2-for-11. Yet, he has come through in the big moments, including with a game-tying home run in the ninth inning of Florida’s 6-5 victory over Virginia.
Winning in late-game situations has been key to Florida’s success in Omaha
While the Gators haven’t yet lost in Omaha, the path to the championship series did not come stress-free. All three of Florida’s wins were decided by a single run, starting with the win over Virginia.
Three runs in the bottom of the ninth, including Langford’s homer and Luke Heyman’s walk-off sacrifice fly, gave Florida the victory, leading O’Sullivan to remark: “We have a chance to hit the ball out of the yard. So one swing of the bat, you can hit a two-run homer or a three-run homer and feel like you can get back into it. It’s not like we have to string together three, four, or five hits in an inning to score.”
Then came a 5-4 win over Oral Roberts, marked by another late-inning stresser. Due to NCAA rules, coaches are only given five mound visits per game. Once that number is exceeded, the coach is required to bring in a new pitcher if a mound visit is conducted. With Oral Roberts batting in the bottom of the eighth, the bases loaded, and Florida leading 5-3, O’Sullivan walked out to the mound, aiming to talk with All-SEC closer Brandon Neely.
But it was O’Sullivan’s sixth mound visit, meaning Neely could not remain in the game. On came freshman Cade Fisher, in the game’s most pivotal moment. Fisher induced a lineout, and then escaped from another bases-loaded jam in the ninth.
“Nobody feels more terrible about it than I do,” O’Sullivan had said of the late-game hiccup, but added, “Cade comes in from Friday night, and is put in a really tough position. He should feel really good about himself. The team was fired up.”
Closing it out
The similarities are obvious between the SEC bluebloods; quality starting pitching is a major trait they both share, as is a lineup with several proven power hitters. They’ve each shared stretches of pure dominance in this postseason, while simultaneously fighting out one-run games in nailbiter finishes. This has all the makings of a series decided in three games, thanks to the depth and experience found on both rosters.
Every great performance needs a memorable final act. And the 2023 College World Series is more than set up for one of the best finales in recent memory.