LSU walks off Wake Forest to advance to CWS championship series

Published 9:56 pm Thursday, June 22, 2023

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Jay Johnson has coached in the College World Series finals before, and he’s won his share of big games.

To him, nothing compared with Thursday night.

“That is one of the greatest moments in my entire life, what happened on the field tonight,” LSU’s second-year coach said after his team’s 2-0, 11-inning victory over No. 1 national seed Wake Forest clinched a spot in the CWS finals.

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Tommy White hit Camden Minacci’s first pitch into the left-field seats to set up an All-SEC best-of-three finals match-up with Florida starting Saturday night. It will be a rematch of the 2017 final that the Gators won for their first national title. LSU and Florida did not play each other this season.

“Now that we’re here, it’s not a surprise,” Johnson said. “This is the first team I’ve coached that I think can win a national championship. Hands down.”

That’s saying something. Johnson nearly won one in 2016 when he was at Arizona, which lost a three-game finals to Coastal Carolina.

LSU (52-16) became the first team to hand Wake Forest (54-12) consecutive losses. The Tigers won 5-2 on Wednesday to set up a second bracket final.

“We just slayed a giant tonight,” Johnson said.

Dylan Crews singled to left leading off the bottom of the 11th against Michael Massey (3-1), prompting Deacons coach Tom Walter to call on his star closer. Minacci’s first pitch to LSU’s home run leader was a 90 mph slider, and White sent it out for his 23rd homer of the year.

“I thought a heater was coming,” White said. “But I was very amped up and I saw a slider that was up. I put my bat head to it. That was about it.”

It was a fitting end to one of the most anticipated non-championship CWS games. LSU was the consensus No. 1 team in the major polls from the start of the season until May 8. Wake Forest was the consensus No. 1 the rest of the way. The teams split their first two games here this week.

The pitching match-up between LSU’s Paul Skenes and Rhett Lowder set this one apart from the first two. The two are projected top-10 overall picks in next month’s Major League Baseball draft, and they matched zeroes deep into the game. Wake Forest came in 18-0 in games Lowder had started.

Skenes allowed two hits and walked one before turning the game over to Thatcher Hurd (7-3) to start the ninth, and his nine strikeouts made him the Southeastern Conference’s single-season record holder. Skenes has 209 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings; previous record holder Ben McDonald had 202 in 152 1/3 for LSU in 1989.

Skenes’ fastball was a tick down from Saturday, when he hit at least 100 mph 46 times against Tennessee, but it was still plenty good — as were his slider and change-up.

Lowder mixed his mid-90s fastball with a sharp slider and allowed three hits, walked two and struck out six in an efficient seven innings. Of his 88 pitches, 63 were strikes.

“Paul Skenes was fantastic, and Rhett matched him pitch for pitch,” Walter said. “It was one of the best-pitched college baseball games I’ve ever seen. And Michael Massey behind him was dominant. And Hurd was, too, for LSU. Runs were hard to come by. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a way to scratch one across there those first 10 or so innings.”

Skenes was backed up by a spot-on defense, never more than in the eighth inning when Justin Johnson drew a leadoff walk and ended up on third on a wild pitch.

Johnson started running for home when Marek Houston bunted to the right side. First baseman Tre’ Morgan charged, picked up the ball and made a diving flip to catcher Alex Milazzo, who tagged Johnson for the second out.

“He showed everyone in the country he’s the most athletic first baseman out there. I saw him lay the bunt down, and Tre’ came flying in to make the play and pick me up,” said Skenes, who got out of the inning when left fielder Josh Pearson, playing shallow, caught Tommy Hawke’s liner.

The Deacons played without Nick Kurtz, a .353 hitter with 24 home runs. He aggravated a rib injury in pregame warmups and was scratched from the lineup 20 minutes before first pitch.

Wake Forest came up a win short of the finals in its first CWS appearance since it won the 1955 national championship.

“I think just the evolution of Wake Forest baseball, to get to where we are now, it’s something to be proud of,” Lowder said. “This is the standard for Wake Forest baseball now.”

CWS Championship Series
(Best-of-3; x-if necessary)
June 24: Florida vs. LSU, 6 p.m.
June 25: Florida vs. LSU, 2 p.m.
x-June 26: Florida vs. LSU, 6 p.m.