LSU vs. Ole Miss: ye olde memories
My alma mater, LSU, hosts Ole Miss in a three-game Southeastern Conference baseball series beginning tonight in Baton Rouge. The series is starting tonight in order to avoid playing on Easter if at all possible. Of course, if it rains one day, as it is want to do in south Louisiana this time of year, the Sunday can be used as a makeup date.
The LSU-Ole Miss baseball series may not be as famous as the football series between the Bayou Bengals and the Rebels, but it has a intensity all its own, one which was ratcheted up several notches in 2001, when former LSU catcher and assistant coach Mike Bianca became Ole Miss’ skipper.
Bianco has taken the Rebels to unprecedented heights, the longest run of sustained success in Oxford since Ole Miss began playing the sport in the late 19th century. The Rebels enjoyed spurts of success under Tom Swayze in the 1960s and early 1970s, and again under former Major Leaguers Jake Gibbs and Don Kessinger in the 1980s and 1990s, but Bianco has made the Rebels a consistent regional participant and brought Ole Miss on par with Mississippi State, something never dreamed possible when Ron Polk had the SEC’s dominant baseball program and the Rebels were just one of the nine other teams in the league.
Even before Bianco arrived at Ole Miss, there have been some very interesting moments between the Rebels and Bayou Bengals on the diamond in the last quarter century. To wit:
1992–A line drive hits LSU ace pitcher Lloyd Peever in the head. Peever is knocked unconscious and is forced to leave the game, but miraculously, he is not seriously hurt, and does not miss a start. Peever would go on to finish the season 13-0 and earn consensus All-America honors in what turned out to be his lone season in Baton Rouge.
1995–Many LSU players come down with food poisoning following a team meal in Jackson. LSU loses the opener 6-0 to Rebel All-American Jamey Price, and coach Skip Bertman is forced to scratch scheduled game two starter Brett Laxton in favor of Brian Winders, who has been exclusively used as a reliever throughout his career. Winders pitches the game of his life, firing a no-hitter until two out in the bottom of the ninth, when a Rebel pinch-hitter spoils it with a wind-aided home run. The Tigers win 2-1, but would lose the rubber game 6-2.
1997–Two years after Winders’ near no-hitter, Patrick Coogan almost does Winders one better. Coogan, who would earn consensus All-America honors following the season, cuts through the Rebels’ lineup better than a knife through butter. He retires the first 11 batters he faces, then has a 1-2 count on Justin Huisman. Two pitches appear to catch the corner, but home plate umpire Larry Waggoner rules them balls, much to the disgust of Bertman. On the full count pitch, Huisman launches a home run. It would be the Rebels’ only baserunner of the game. Coogan sets an LSU nine-inning record by facing only 28 batters in a 7-1 victory.
1998–LSU ends the season in Oxford. The Tigers need a combination of two wins and/or Florida losses to clinch the SEC championship. LSU wins game one 11-4. Then it goes south. Ole Miss wins 9-0 and 10-8, leaving the Bayou Bengals one-half game behind Florida, which swept Georgia at home on the final weekend. The Gators benefitted from a rainout at Alabama on opening weekend after the Crimson Tide won the first two games of the series.
1999–In the rubber game of an otherwise mundane series, Trey McClure makes a leaping catch near the center field fence in the fourth inning. Ole Miss’ runners are on the move, believing there was no way McClure would catch the ball. The Tigers take advantage: McClure to Josh Dalton to Ryan Theriot to Jeff Leaumont for the triple play, just the third for LSU since 1965.
2001–Bianco’s first Ole Miss team comes to Baton Rouge for Easter weekend in what will be Bertman’s final series vs. the Rebels. The Tigers crush the Rebels in game one 13-2, but the second game is a totally different story. The Rebels take turns battering LSU pitching worse than a piñata. It gets so bad Bertman elects to let shortstop Ryan Theriot pitch in the ninth inning rather than waste any more arms for the series finale. Ole Miss wins 23-10, but Bertman’s strategy pays off when LSU wins the rubber game.
In the SEC tournament a month later, LSU is caught with its pants down when Ole Miss turns a routine fly ball into a triple play. The Rebels lose, and would lose again to LSU two days later.
2002–Smoke Laval’s first SEC road series is in Oxford. Following an 11-3 Ole Miss win in game one, LSU resorts to trickery to help it win the second game.
Wally Pontiff successfully executes the hidden ball trick at third base. I was the only person in the press box who knew what happened when the Rebel runner all of a sudden walked back to the dugout. Score it 5 unassisted, picked off.
The next day, Ole Miss shells LSU’s bullpen for five runs in the eighth to win 10-8 and claim the series. The decisive blow is a grand slam, one which Tiger center fielder David Raymer almost fell over the fence chasing. The Tigers were 2-4 in the SEC after the series (LSU lost 2 of 3 in its opening series to Vanderbilt), but would recover nicely to host a regional (and win) before being shut out twice by Rice in a super regional at Houston.
2003–Nothing really notable on the field, as LSU takes 2 of 3 in Baton Rouge. The biggest news comes on the public address system, where my man, Bill Franques, takes two days off to attend to personal business. The radio voice of the LSU women’s basketball and softball teams, Patrick Wright, fills in Friday, while the voice of Tiger Stadium and the Pete Maravich Assmebly Center, Daniel Stanford Borne, fills in Saturday.
Bill Franques is now in his 29th season as LSU baseball publicity director. TWENTY NINTH season. If he isn’t inducted into the College Baseball and College Sports Information Directors Halls of Fame, I’m going to have to write some nasty letters. Just kidding about the nasty part, but I will inquire. God bless Yvette, his lovely wife, for putting up its Bill being gone so often. Lesser women might not have held up.
There were so many good men (and women) I met during my years at LSU. I treated many of them very poorly. I feel beyond awful about it, and I still do. I feel like I should go to Birmingham during the SEC tournament and apologize. Maybe my mentor, Herb Vincent, who is now an Executive Associatie Commissioner with the SEC, can help.
I cannot wait to see Bill next weekend in Lexington. I’m also looking forward to seeing Kentucky for the first time. I’ve heard nothing but great things, but I also hear there is too much smoking, which I don’t like.
It’s almost noon. I’m at the Buffalo Wild Wings near Liberty (technically, the restaurant is inside the Kansas City city limits, but everyone terms it Liberty since it is in Clay County, and it avoids confusion with the B-Dubs at Zona Rosa, which is in Platte County). Maybe it’s time to order some food.