Mahtook delivers when it counts for LSU

OMAHA, Neb. -- In each of his first three at-bats in Monday night's opening game of the College World Series championship series, LSU center fielder Mikie Mahtook felt lost like never before.

"My first three at-bats were probably my worst three at-bats of the year," Mahtook said.

Mahtook, a freshman from Lafayette, La., faced Texas ace Chance Ruffin three times in the first six innings at Rosenblatt Stadium. He struck out swinging all three times -- on three pitches in the second inning, four pitches in the fourth and four pitches in the sixth.

"I was chasing balls down in the dirt," Mahtook said. "They weren't even near strikes."

Yet, when Mahtook went to the plate with the score tied at 6-6 in the top of the 11th inning, he felt confident he would deliver the hit that would put the Tigers within one victory of winning a national championship.

LSU's DJ LeMahieu led off the 11th with a walk, and with two outs, he stole second and moved to third when Texas catcher Cameron Rupp's throw bounced into center field. After catcher Micah Gibbs walked, Mahtook fought off a couple of 1-2 pitches from Longhorns reliever Brandon Workman before ripping an RBI single up the middle for a 7-6 victory.

"My first three at-bats, it wasn't like I just struck out," Mahtook said. "It was three terrible at-bats. When I got into the dugout, guys were telling me to make sure I keep my head straight. Jared Mitchell told me I was going to come back up again with a big at-bat, and you're going to come through for us. That helped me out a lot."

With one swing of the bat, Mahtook put LSU in position to win its sixth national championship and first since 2000. By rallying from a two-run deficit with two outs in the ninth, the Tigers also turned the tables on a Texas team that seemed to have found every way to win during the NCAA tournament. The Longhorns hit five solo homers Monday, but the Tigers delivered when the game was on the line in extra innings.

"I'm so proud of these kids," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "To have their backs against the wall on that kind of stage and to come up with that kind of effort, it's one for the ages."

If the Tigers are able to beat Texas again -- they have to win once more in the best-of-three championship series to claim the title -- they'll look back at Mahtook's hit in the 11th inning as one of the biggest in LSU's storied baseball history.

After struggling in his first at-bats, Mahtook needed intravenous fluids to treat cramps in the sixth inning. The temperature at Rosenblatt Stadium was 93 degrees when Ruffin delivered the first pitch at 6:11 p.m. CT. The heat index was 107 degrees.

Mahtook, MVP of the SEC tournament, seemed to be wilting in the stifling heat and pressure of playing for a national championship. After striking out three times, he bounced into a double play in the eighth. He was responsible for five of LSU's first 24 outs.

But after the Tigers rallied to tie the score at 6-6 on LeMahieu's two-run double with two outs in the top of the ninth, Mahtook knew he'd get at least one more chance at redemption. He slapped a single to right in the 10th, but LSU left the bases loaded by striking out twice.

Mahtook knew LSU couldn't squander another opportunity to score in the 11th.

Before Mahtook stepped to the plate with runners at first and third, he looked down at his black cleats. He writes "No. 54" on his shoes to remember his father, former LSU linebacker Mike Mahtook, who died of a heart attack 16 years ago. Mahtook was only 4 when his father died, but he's learned bits and pieces about him from his father's four brothers and two sisters.

Mahtook believes that on the day after Father's Day, his father was with him at the plate in the 11th inning.

"That's his late Father's Day present," Mahtook said. "He's with me all the time. When I got up to bat, I knew he was going to do something big for me. I spent the past 15 Father's Days without him. Today, I just happened to be in Omaha playing in the biggest game of my life, and he was here with me."

Tuesday night's game against Texas will be even bigger for the Tigers.

As big as LSU's victory was Monday night, Mainieri knows the College World Series is far from over.

"I think they understand that we haven't won anything yet," Mainieri said. "I've been drilling it through their heads that we didn't play for the national championship tonight. We needed to win a game before we played for the national championship. Now we get to play for it."

And the Longhorns, who are trying to become the first national No. 1 seed since Miami in 1999 to win the title, are still standing in LSU's way.

"Georgia wiped out Fresno State in the first game last year and was ahead in the second game," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "Fresno came back and waltzed off with the national championship on the third day."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.