OMAHA-Three games, three very different outcomes.
That was the story of the trio of battles between LSU and Florida for the 2023 national crown. An extra-innings homer from Cade Beloso gave the Tigers a 4-3 victory in game one, only to be followed by an offensive onslaught from Florida in game two, as the Gators prevailed 24-4.
But in the all-decisive third game on Monday night, LSU flipped the script.
The Tigers, seemingly unfazed by Florida’s dominance a day before, stepped to the plate in the second inning and never looked back. An RBI single from Jordan Thompson cut the 2-0 Florida lead in half before things unraveled for Florida starter Jac Caglianone on the mound. A walk, hit-by-pitch, and another walk put LSU in front, 3-2, leading to a six-run inning that brought the large contingent of fans donning purple and yellow to their feet.
They had come to see LSU win a national championship, and that is exactly what the Tigers did, overwhelming Florida in an 18-4 victory. It marked LSU’s seventh national title in program history.
“I really believe this will go down as one of the best teams in college baseball history,” LSU head coach Jay Johnson began in the postgame press conference. “[They were] so consistent in the NCAA Tournament.
“We had 11 wins in the postseason, six of them against SEC teams. And I really believe we played and beat the best team that could’ve played along the way through the entire tournament at that spot.”
For the better part of the season, it seemed the national title was destined for Baton Rouge. The Tigers held the nation’s No. 1 spot in College Baseball Nation’s Top 50 ranking for 13 straight weeks, dating back to the July 5, 2022 “Way-Too-Early” ranking, and up through the 11th week of the regular season.
That high acclaim stemmed in large part from the transfers LSU added following its exit in the Hattiesburg Regional, instantly bolstering its position within the national pecking order. Those transfers panned out, led by ace Paul Skenes, whose dominance on the mound almost single-handedly lifted LSU past Wake Forest and into the championship series.
Thatcher Hurd also joined the LSU pitching staff as a newcomer in 2023, a 6-foot-4 right-handed transfer from UCLA. And it was Hurd who tamed the powerful Florida bats on Monday night, allowing for the Tigers’ expansion of the lead. The sophomore went six innings, giving up just two hits and two runs–both scoring on Wyatt Langford’s first-inning home run. Hurd struck out seven Florida batters.
“When [Thatcher] said that he was going to come to LSU, I said, ‘Hey big guy, you might be the most important recruit of my entire career,’” Johnson recalled. ”I knew what the other three on the stage were going to do, but to win a national championship and get through the NCAA Tournament, we needed real aces. And that’s an ace, right there.”
And who could forget about Tommy White? The hard-hitting third baseman etched his name into the history books with a walk-off home run against Wake Forest on Thursday, breaking the 11th inning tie, and followed up with a whopping seven hits in the championship series. Three of those came on Monday night, as White, from the third spot in the order, drove in three runs.
With his distinct batting stance and passionate personality, the NC State transfer certainly made an impact. His final hit of the victory came in the top of the ninth, as White drove 2-2 pitch down the left field line, prompting Dylan Crews’ dash from second base, around third, and across the plate. White scored one batter later on Tre’ Morgan’s double to the left field gap, giving the Tigers a 16-4 lead.
Of course, the returning core played no small role in the optimism, either. And on Monday night, the veteran leaders paced the lineup in its highest run total in Omaha.
Cade Beloso, a fifth-year senior who played in his 151st–and final–game with LSU in the national title win, posted a 2-for-5 performance, driving in a pair of runs while reaching base twice more after being hit by a pitch.
Crews, a junior, followed Beloso at the No. 2 slot in the lineup and tallied four hits of his own, with a team-best three runs scored. Morgan, in the cleanup spot, did not disappoint either, with a 3-for-6 day that concluded with his RBI double off the left field wall in the ninth. Nothing stopped the Tigers’ on this night, as the offense rolled in similar fashion to Florida’s on Sunday.
The impact Crews had on the LSU ballclub went beyond just a 4-for-6 performance on the final night of the season. In fact, Johnson said postgame that Crews was part of the reason he took the job in Baton Rouge in the first place.
“Dylan is the best player in college baseball history in my opinion,” Johnson noted. “Frankly, it was a big reason why I accepted the job. I probably would’ve looked at LSU anyways, but knowing that I was going to have a once-in-a lifetime player on my team for two years was a big deal.”
And then there was Thompson, the junior shortstop who struggled in both the field and at the plate throughout Sunday’s defeat, as he struck out twice and committed a pair of costly errors.
Nothing had gone his way a day earlier, but Thompson responded with a 2-for-6 showing at the plate on the biggest stage on Monday, all the while making a series of stellar plays at shortstop. Two of the final three outs in the ninth inning were ground balls hit straight in his direction.
“I brought him into my room this morning, and said, ‘Hey man, we’re winning the national championship tonight. And you’re going to do something special. But is there anything I can do to help you get to that point?,’” Johnson said of his pregame conversation with Thompson
“And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m good.’ I saw tonight happen before it happened.”
In the moments following the home run-hitting showcase from Florida on Sunday, Johnson summed up the Gators’ success quite simply. “It was an onslaught of good at-bats and barrels [on the ball],” he had said.
A day later, he was saying the same about his squad. Perhaps no moment defined the performance better than Brayden Jobert’s ninth-inning, two-run homer into the right field seats. The right-fielder, who went 4-for-7 and tied his season-high for hits in a game, sent Fisher Jameson’s pitch into the sea of purple in the stands beyond the outfield wall, giving LSU its eventual one-sided 18-4 victory.
The leaping of the crowd had no unison to it, and yet it seemed to be in perfect harmony; they knew exactly what they were witnessing. It is what they had known was a perfectly logical reality dating all the way back to the season-opening sweep of Western Michigan in February.
“Great teams play near their capability often,” Johnson said. “I talked about ‘staying in character’ a lot. Those are not just words. That’s what we had to do. If we did that, then I could surrender the result. Because I had so much confidence in what the result could be.”
The weight of the expectations appeared to have taken its toll in late May, when Auburn and Mississippi State handed LSU series losses on consecutive weekends. The 1-2 showing at the SEC Tournament left questions as to how the Tigers would close the 2023 campaign.
But once the NCAA Tournament began, LSU quickly erased those question marks, ending up in Omaha without a loss. A 3-2 loss to Wake Forest in their second game of the world series put the Tigers in three straight elimination games en route to the matchup with Florida. And when faced with another de facto elimination contest on Monday, LSU surpassed all expectations by the pure margin of victory.
“Coming into today, we all knew this was going to be the last game of the season, no matter if we won or lost,” Thompson said. “From the moment that we all woke up and saw each other in the morning when we had our team meeting, we knew what we wanted to do today and we knew what it was going to take for us to be able to accomplish it.”