MCWS 2023: Previewing Wake Forest-LSU, winner advances to championship

OMAHA, Neb. -- In the end, deep down, we should have known there was going to be another game between LSU and Wake Forest. Because in this most competitive of Men's College World Series, where one-run games and late-innings rallies have become commonplace, there was no way the baseball gods would let a Thursday night "if necessary" contest be anything other than necessary. Especially when it would mean one more faceoff between the only two teams to hold down the No. 1 spot in the national rankings all season long.

And so it shall be. A Thursday night prime-time, winner-takes-all, toughest-side-of-the-bracket title match to determine who will face the Florida Gators this weekend with a national championship on the line.

Had Wake Forest defeated LSU on Wednesday evening in Omaha, that matchup would already be set. But the Demon Deacons, seeking to win their first MCWS title since 1955 and the first for the national No. 1 seed since 1999, made an uncharacteristic pitching miscalculation early and never got their notoriously late-starting bats cranked up, losing 5-2 to set up the rematch.

That out-of-character pitching faux pas happened in the bottom of the third, when starter Seth Keener, who entered the game 8-1, was scuffling. Nursing a 2-1 lead, the junior righty surrendered two four-pitch walks, the first one semi-intentional to LSU All-American Dylan Crews, as well as a single and a wild pitch that surrendered the tying run. That brought designated hitter Cade Beloso and his .613 slugging percentage to the plate with two runners still on base. Even with a reliever up in the bullpen, Wake Forest's much and rightfully hyped pitching analytics kept Keener on the mound. Beloso proceeded to mash the third pitch -- and first strike -- he saw into the right-field bullpen. It was only the ninth time this season that Wake surrendered four-plus runs in one inning.

"I had a chance to walk Beloso there and I didn't go with my first instinct," Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said after the loss, admitting he toyed with an intentional walk to load the bases and perhaps give Sean Sullivan, the lefty warming up, a little more time to get ready. He didn't. "[Keener] threw a changeup that he just elevated. ... [Beloso] is a good hitter, and I should have walked him in that situation. I think it would have been a totally different game had I had I'd done that."

That 5-2 score somehow survived the next, super-tense 5½ frames -- seven hits and 12 runners left stranded via a series of situational snatches, grabs and stabs -- to somehow finish as the final score.

Now there is a much larger score to be settled. Wake Forest defeated LSU in Monday night's Game 8 by a scant 3-2 advantage earned in the top of the ninth inning. LSU returned serve Wednesday night, despite pregame chatter about depleted pitching. Thursday night is the rubber match. And the rubber might as well be made of flint. Especially if it is toed by the expected pitching matchup of Rhett Lowder, two-time ACC Pitcher of the Year, versus Paul Skenes, the consensus national pitcher of the year.

Walter is in his 27th season as a head coach and his 14th with the Demon Deacons; however, this is his first trip to Omaha. Jay Johnson is in only his second season with LSU and his tenth as a Division I head coach, but he's at his third Men's College World Series. The first two visits were with the Arizona Wildcats, including a championship series loss to another Cinderella story out of the Carolinas, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, in 2016.

While this is Wake's first MCWS since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, LSU has been here so many times -- 19 in all -- that entire generations of Omaha kids have grown up wearing purple and gold. Even still, LSU's last title celebration came way back in 2009, an eternity in Tiger years.

A win Thursday night would be a huge cleat step toward stomping out one of those very long Series droughts. Sure, the Florida Gators, their perfect 3-0 MCWS record and their well-rested arms will await the winner on Saturday. But that'll be a nice problem to have.

"We'll be in a good headspace tomorrow," Walter said of his roster, some members of which had just reminded the press room that the Deacons haven't lost a three-game series all season long. "I don't worry about us coming out and playing well or being nervous or, you know, the situation being too big for us."

"I tell them this 365 days a year, every year, that we are working off a mindset that we expect to be here, that we expect to be playing important baseball in June," Johnson added moments later. "When we are playing on a Tuesday in March against McNeese State, that is a playoff game for us. And the thought process behind that is if you do that all year long, then you can stay in character when you get to the postseason."

Johnson's DH, the one who hit the three-run homer that ultimately kept that postseason alive, was a little more succinct as he headed up the stadium corridor back to the LSU bus.

"We will treat Thursday night like we did tonight. Like this like any other game."

Then the fifth-year Tiger, the one who toughed it out through the pandemic and a torn ACL to be here in Omaha, knowing that the final out of his MCWS will also be the final out of his college baseball career, turned around to make a clarification.

"We're going to treat it like any other game ... but you know this isn't any other game, right?"

Heck yeah, we do. It's more than just another game. It's necessary.