BATON ROUGE, La. | As far as head coach Paul Mainieri was concerned, LSU's road to Omaha began when ace Louis Coleman decided to remain with the Tigers for his senior year rather than sign with the Washington Nationals.
"I'll remember these conversations I had with him last summer until the day I die," Mainieri said. "When he decided he was going to come back, I said, 'Louis, it's going to make all the difference in the world with our team. It's the final piece of the puzzle. ... We're going to go back to Omaha because of you."
Indeed, they are.
Coleman pitched eight strong innings, Derek Helenihi drove in two runs and LSU beat Rice 5-3 on Saturday to win the Baton Rouge super regional and clinch the Tigers' second straight College World Series appearance and the school's 15th overall. It was also LSU's 10th consecutive victory.
Coleman, a 14th-round pick of the Nationals last June, scattered nine hits, struck out five and kept Rice from scoring in the seventh and eighth innings while LSU (51-16) clung to a two-run lead. It was the last time Coleman would ever pitch for the Tigers on LSU's home field, and the record crowd of 9,651 at the new Alex Box Stadium roared as Coleman retired the side in the eighth and walked off the mound for the last time.
"Being the last start I'll ever get (on LSU's campus), I wanted to go out there and do something special not only for this team but for the fans, just go out there and give everything I had," Coleman said.
Closer Matty Ott pitched the ninth, striking out Brock Holt with a man on to wrap up his 16th save. Mainieri revealed after the game that Ott had tightness in his throwing arm during LSU's regional round and that it was not certain until several days after LSU had advanced to the super regional that Ott would be able to pitch against Rice.
Ott retired the first two batters he faced before hitting pinch-hitter Ryan Lewis, meaning Holt, who had three hits in the game and two homers in the series, represented the tying run before Ott got him swinging, sparking a celebratory dog pile near the mound.
"I don't know if I feel great or relieved, to be honest with you," Mainieri said. "This has been a real grind to get to this point because this season started with such promise for our team coming off the World Series appearance last year, having so many veterans back, building the new stadium. ... These kids have been under the microscope all year."
Helenihi drove in a run in the fourth inning with a single, and hit a solo homer in the sixth for the Tigers' final run.
Ryan Berry (7-2) took the loss for Rice (43-18), which fell two victories short in its bid for a fourth straight CWS appearance. Berry gave up five earned runs in five innings, but also struck out six and got several clutch outs to prevent LSU from breaking the game open.
"I'm going to be disappointed because we had as talented a team (as LSU) and I just didn't produce," Berry said. "I, myself, didn't do my job, but I'm proud of the team and proud of the way we fought."
LSU, which won Game 1 12-9 as the home team Friday night, was designated the visitor in Game 2.
After D.J. LeMahieu led the game off with a double and scored on a fielder's choice to put LSU up 1-0, Rice had a chance to vault into the lead in the bottom of the inning with runners on second and third and one out. But Coleman struck out Rice's best hitter, freshman third baseman Anthony Rendon, on three pitches, then got out of the inning without allowing a run.
Rendon's day got much worse when he seriously injured his right ankle chasing a foul ball near the stands in the top of the second inning, depriving Rice of a .388 hitter with 20 home runs. Rendon was carried off the field and his injury wasn't immediately clear, but team officials said they feared his ankle was either severely sprained or broken.
"That was very tough to see Anthony be taken out," Holt said. "He has been our best player the whole season and we've been counting on him for big hits. But we do have guys that can step in and play well."
LSU took the lead for good with two runs in the top of the fifth, highlighted by Blake Dean's double that put runners on second and third with none out. Schimpf scored on a fielder's choice and Dean on a wild pitch.
Four innings later, the Tigers were running laps around the warning track, exchanging high-fives with jubilant fans, and Coleman sensed the ultimate validation of his decision to come back.
"It's the greatest decision I've ever made in my life," Coleman said.