OMAHA, Nebraska -- When the scoreboard lights were finally turned off at Charles Schwab Field on Thursday night, the memories of the numbers that had been posted on that board were still there. They won't fade for some time, if ever. Certainly not in the minds of the LSU faithful, their team having just won a 2-0 contest by way of a two-run homer in the bottom of the 11th inning to advance to the Men's College World Series finals. And most definitely not in the minds of the stunned Wake Forest fans who, an hour after that ball had sailed over the left-field wall, were still so reluctant to leave, not wanting to make the final steps toward the stadium exit that would make their heartbreak official.
"We are so sorry to do this, but it's time to head home," a police officer said as he made his way through the first-base stand, gently placing his hand on the shoulder of a weeping woman in a "Rake Forest" T-shirt. "It's a shame someone had to lose a game like that."
Every person in attendance, all 23,993 of them, was left wondering about that statement. A game like that. Had they ever seen a game like that? Omaha media veterans were sent digging through their memory banks for the answer. Those who fancy themselves Men's College World Series historians started having the conversation aloud in the press box as the contest blasted through inning after inning at a torrid pace.
LSU starting pitcher Paul Skenes, the undisputed national pitcher of the year, muscled his way through eight innings, surrendering no runs on a pair of hits and his lone walk issued offset by nine strikeouts.
Paul Skenes, Disgusting 88mph Changeup followed by a 99mph Heater.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 23, 2023
8th K pic.twitter.com/SlnYG7TCOE
Wake Forest's Rhett Lowder, a two-time ACC Pitcher of the Year and a two-time All-American, gutted out seven innings of shutout ball, giving up only three hits while throwing 73 strikes over 88 pitches.
Rhett Lowder, Nasty 88mph Slider. 😨— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 23, 2023
141st K this year.
New single-season Wake Forest strikeout record. pic.twitter.com/9ICmBuD4d1
When Lowder left the game, the official scorer announced to the press box to much laughter, "He will not factor in tonight's decision." Skenes' removal one inning later was met with the same announcement and same chuckles. The only decision to be made was where their frantic anything-you-can-do duel, performed in this do-or-die end-of-season situation, ranked among the greatest nights in Men's College World Series history.
Was it better than the 1973 semifinals between Minnesota and USC, when future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield struck out 15 and entered the ninth inning with a 7-0 lead, but his arm finally tired out after 140 pitches and the Trojans came back to win?
Was it better than the 1999 semifinals, when Stanford trailed Florida State by five runs, but came back to send the game into extra frames, ultimately won by an FSU three-run shot in the 13th?
Was it better than 1987, when a pair of future big leaguers, Stanford's Jack McDowell and Georgia's Derek Lilliquist, battled over multiple rain-soaked days before "Blackjack" prevailed 3-2? Mississippi State's Will Bednar over Vandy's Kumar Rocker in the final game of the 2021 MCWS? Heck, even looking away from Omaha, was it at the level of what many still consider the greatest college baseball game ever played, a 1981 NCAA tourney showdown between future Mets teammates Frank Viola and Ron Darling, then at St. John's and Yale, who both carried no-hitters into extra innings?
"I have never seen a game better than the one we played in," confessed LSU head coach Jay Johnson, who has played or coached college baseball since 1997. "To be clear, not that I played in or coached in. This is the best game that I have ever seen."
Consider that both starters during their efforts set career strikeout records, Skenes breaking the LSU/SEC mark that had stood since 1989 and Lowder the Wake Forest career K's mark that had stood since 1992, 10 years before he was born. Then throw in the fact that their relievers' stat lines were nearly as spotless, all the way up until Camden Minacci's lone pitch, the slider that third baseman Tommy White deposited over the wall for the win.
"To be honest, I think it might have been cooler for the people in the stands than it was for me," Skenes said after the game, revealing that he took over the role of de facto pitching coach and hype man for eventual winning pitcher Thatcher Hurd. "It just came down to slowing the game down and executing, whether it was us on the mound or the guys in the field. It had to be a perfect game for both teams, and it really kind of was."
Lost in the box score but not to eyewitnesses were the stories behind so many of the 36 outs recorded on the night. Dives, snares, catches on the run and one of the most startling saves on a would-be-lead-taking bunt, executed with such speed and precision by LSU first baseman Tre' Morgan, who admitted afterward that he wasn't sure how he pulled it off.
"Maybe you don't bunt as hard, like 3% less, or maybe you slide a little lower, like inches lower," said Wake Forest coach Tom Walter. "But that's the perfect way to describe this game all night. An inch here. A fraction of an inch there. It was that close. The expectations coming into this game were off the charts, and both teams delivered on that. That's nearly impossible to do."
Making the impossible look possible was the theme of this most epic of nights. It's been nearly impossible for MCWS games to remain scoreless, and yet this game was only the fourth to carry a 0-0 score into extra innings since metal bats were introduced in 1974, and the first at all since 1985. Skenes was supposed to be tired and the Demon Deacons' stated goal was to force him to throw a ton of pitches early, and yet he entered the fourth inning having tossed the ball all of 46 times. Wake Forest had been a run-producing juggernaut all season, and yet LSU's supposedly depleted pitching staff held the Deacs scoreless over their last 19 innings of Omaha play.
And speaking of impossible, how about the moment that took place after that final, tension-releasing, title series spot-clinching homer by White off Minacci? As the Tigers flooded the field to celebrate their win, they inadvertently formed a purple and gold conga line of baseball players that started making its way across the infield like a windshield wiper.
White, while enveloped by teammates, spotted Minacci, still standing on the infield grass and about to be swallowed up by the team who'd just broken his black and gold-covered heart. The slugger left his LSU teammates, ran to Minacci, and threw his arms around him.
Turns out, they grew up together in the Tampa area. They have played baseball together and as rivals at every rung on the baseball ladder. They were youth league teammates. They traveled together. They went to sleepovers together. Their teams even shared a hotel this week in Omaha.
They have always been connected by baseball. Now they will always be connected by a baseball game that will forever be on everyone's lists of the greatest Men's College World Series contests ever played.
"Their season is over and it's a hard time. Cameron is one of my closest friends, so I didn't want him to be so upset. I just wanted to make sure he was OK," White said in the Charles Schwab Stadium tunnel, just within view of the Wake Forest fans who were being told it was time to leave. It was time for White and his teammates to leave, too. They have a title bout to prepare for.
"I know we have to start thinking about Florida, about playing them for a national championship this weekend," the slugger said, smiling through his meticulously applied WWE-ish eye black. "But right now, honestly, I just want to think about this game a little bit more if that's cool."
It is cool. Because everyone else would like to think about it a little more, too.