LSU outlasts Virginia in CWS opener
OMAHA, Neb. – LSU found another unlikely hero at the College World Series.
No, Sean Ochinko’s go-ahead three-run homer in the Tigers’ 9-5 victory over Virginia on Saturday night didn’t have the dramatic flair of Warren Morris’ improbable winner in the 1996 championship game against Miami.
But it sure was big for a guy who hadn’t gone deep in 32 games and had already struck out twice when he stepped to the plate in the fifth inning.
“It was good to be able to help the team and drive in some runs, even though I struck out three times, too,” Ochinko said. “I’m not going to lie to you guys, that was the most important baseball moment of my life.”
Ryan Schimpf’s two-run blast in the eighth broke open the game for the Tigers, who extended their season-high winning streak to 11 games.
The Tigers (52-16), ranked No. 1 in the major polls and the No. 3 national seed, play Southeastern Conference rival Arkansas on Monday night. Virginia (48-14-1), in the CWS for the first time, meets Cal State Fullerton in an elimination game the same day.
“The bats came to life,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Ochinko’s home run turned the tide, and Schimpf came through and we were able to separate ourselves a little bit. It’s nice to win the first game of the College World Series. I don’t know how many years it’s been since LSU has done that.”
The Tigers won their Omaha opener for the first time in four appearances since 2000 and are in position to take control of Bracket 1 if they can beat their Southeastern Conference rivals Monday.
LSU banged out 14 hits against a Virginia pitching staff that had given up a total of 10 runs over its past six games.
“That was the most offensive game I’ve ever coached in the College World Series in my three trips here,” Mainieri said. “Virginia has outstanding pitching. We took the best batting practice of the season yesterday, and then our hitters went out and really battled.”
With LSU trailing 4-3, Micah Gibbs and Mikie Mahtook reached on singles leading off the bottom of the fifth. Ochinko then drove a 2-1 pitch from Matt Packer (3-5) into the left-field bleachers to put the Tigers up 6-4. It was Ochinko’s eighth of the year and first since April 3 at Georgia.
Franco Valdes’ opposite-field home run to left off Austin Ross made it 6-5 in the seventh. Ross (6-7) and three other pitchers then combined to hold the Cavaliers to two hits and no runs the rest of the way.
Schimpf’s 20th home run of the season, off Tyler Wilson, gave closer Matty Ott a four-run cushion when he went to the mound for the ninth. After he gave up a double to Valdes, Ott struck out Jarrett Parker to end the game.
The game matched Virginia coach Brian O’Connor against his mentor and close friend, LSU’s Paul Mainieri. O’Connor was Mainieri’s pitching coach on Notre Dame’s 2002 CWS team, and when he left for Virginia in 2004, the two vowed to never play each other unless it was in the NCAA tournament.
The emotional meeting lasted 3 hours, 40 minutes. The teams combined for 28 hits and went through a total of nine pitchers.
“It was very satisfying and rewarding for me to shake his hand and give him a hug before the game,” O’Connor said. “We both agreed we weren’t going to look at each other during the game. We were going to let the players on the field decide the game. I’m looking forward to locking horns with him again sometime in this tournament.”
Mainieri said he’s not looking forward to squaring off with O’Connor again.
“I had to ignore the fact that Brian was in that dugout,” Mainieri said. “You’re happy for your kids, but as soon as the last out is made, you know your friend is hurting and you want to console him. I’m glad the game is over and we can move forward.”