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Freshman battles like a veteran

OMAHA, Neb. -- At the time, Mikie Mahtook probably wished he had the Golden Sombrero.

In Monday night's College World Series championship opener, Game 1 of a best-of-three set between LSU and Texas, the Tigers' freshman center fielder struck out his first three at-bats against Longhorns starter Chance Ruffin ("three terrible at bats," Mahtook said), and when he had the chance to redeem himself in his fourth plate appearance -- with a runner on first, one out and LSU trailing 6-4 -- Mahtook succeeded in putting the ball in play, but his ground ball to second became an inning- and rally-ending double play in the eighth. A strikeout would have hurt the team less, extending the inning for the team's rightfielder, junior Jared Mitchell, a recent first-round pick by the Chicago White Sox.

But making contact proved reassuring. So did Mitchell, who approached his rookie teammate in the dugout, told him to shake it off and said, "You're going to come back up again in a big spot."

After Mahtook had a Jeterian single in the 10th (a weak ground ball poked just between the first and second basemen), that big spot arose in the 11th. With two outs and the bases loaded, Texas' fourth reliever of the night, Brandon Workman, deviated from his 95-mile-per-hour fastball on a 1-2 count, left the curve ball up and Mahtook roped it into center field for what proved to be the winning run, as LSU took a classic Game 1 by a 7-6 (RECAP) score.

To come out here and play a team like this, on this stage, just shows what our ball club is about," Mitchell said.

Texas, meanwhile, had been the dramatic walk-off winner three times already in the NCAA tournament, including a 25-inning regional win over Boston College and a two-home run comeback in the ninth against Arizona State on Friday. This time, the Longhorns were on the opposite side, shut down by a Tigers bullpen that held UT scoreless over the last five innings.

UT coach Augie Garrido said after the game his team will need "to recognize the opportunity of tomorrow after a devastating loss. That's a hard thing to do. The problem was the loss. The performance was pretty damn good."

It's the clash of titans college baseball wanted. While Fresno State's unlikely championship was a great feel-good story last year, this year finals pits the tournament's No. 1 seed, Texas, a six-time champion, against the polls' No. 1 seed, LSU, a five-time champion. Few could argue that these aren't the sport's best two clubs.

For a night, Rosenblatt Stadium played like the Midwestern edition of the new Yankee Stadium. Game time temperature at 93 degrees, but with the 59 percent humidity, the on-field heat index was 107 -- LSU designated hitter Blake Dean said it was hotter than any game in Baton Rouge -- and a casual breeze to left-center field all combined to make the park feel very small.

Much of the pre-game hype and analysis pitted LSU's power against Texas' small ball approach (the Longhorns entered the game with 102 sacrifices to 45 homers), and after Ryan Schimpf hit a first-inning homer for LSU, all the talk seemed prescient. But it was Texas which hit five homers -- all solo shots -- which is fully one-tenth of its season output, and it was LSU which tried the third-inning sacrifice, scored five of its runs on base hits that stayed in the yard and scored the winner thanks to DJ LeMahieu's 11th-inning stolen base.

And Garrido might have overmanaged in the sixth. Ruffin had thrown only 87 pitches through 5 2/3 innings, with 10 strikeouts, and led 3-1 with two runners on, and Mitchell coming to the plate. Rather than stick with his hot starter -- Ruffin admitted that his right calf was cramping but said after the game that he was confident he could have gotten out of the jam -- Garrido played the percentages and brought in his lefty closer, Austin Wood, into the sixth inning to face the lefty Mitchell, who delivered a two-RBI triple into the left-centerfield gap.

"I was just thinking to stay inside the baseball and keep my front shoulder in, because I knew he was going to go away with everything," Mitchell said. "I knew he was going to attack the strike zone. The kid throws strikes and is their most reliable guy."

And when asked about the respect Texas showed him in bringing in its bullpen ace to face him so relatively early in the game, Mitchell demurred, saying only, "They were really trying to shut the door right there."

It was a hit that Mitchell might not have had a year, or even a month ago. In May, Mainieri resisted platooning Mitchell, who had been struggling against lefties, and allowed his raw, five-tool player work through his woes. "That kid is an athlete," Mainieri said, "and athletes figure it out."

This spring was, after all, Mitchell's first full season on the baseball team, even though it was his third year in Baton Rouge because Mitchell is also a receiver on the football team, meaning spring practice interrupted his play.

"I missed it, but I didn't miss it," said Mitchell with a laugh, also pointing out that he'll be running the same LSU offense for a fourth year in the fall. "Why not give me a chance to fully dedicate myself to a baseball season one time?"

Of course, considering the likely riches that will be offered to him by the White Sox, those skipped football practices are probably moot. When Mainieri met with football coach Les Miles to discuss the possibility of Mitchell playing the entire baseball season, he gave two reasons: one, that it'd be fair to give the young player the chance to develop on the diamond more and, two, if he were to become a high draft pick, he'd only be costing younger receivers reps. The latter pitch proves that Mainieri will always have a backup occupation of salesman waiting for him.

And it's true that Mainieri did bench Mitchell for part of last spring because he wasn't playing well while juggling time with the football team. This year Mainieri says Mitchell has improved in all areas, especially hitting lefties, defending rightfield and even bunting, though he rarely executes the latter in games.

"He's going to make a much better pro than he was a college player, when he's totally dedicated to baseball," Mainieri said. "Right now he's still trying to learn to play the game while we're playing for a national championship."

One of last year's top performers in Omaha, Georgia shortstop GordonBeckham, was a first-round pick of the White Sox in 2008 (No. 8 overall) and is already playing in the majors on the South Side, having made the leap in less than a year. But Beckham was a one-sport athlete, so while Mitchell will probably need some extra seasoning time in the minors, he doesn't regret not specializing for a second.

Mitchell believes the versatility and skills of both sports will help him in the long run, and of course, he's already earned one of the biggest rings ever minted, thanks to LSU football. In fact, Mitchell and teammate Chad Jones, who pitched a scoreless inning of relief against Texas, have the unique distinction of being the first two athletes to play in both a BCS-era football championship and the College World Series.

When the Tigers won the BCS title in January 2008, the players were all given massive championship rings. The rings are so large that when Al Jones -- father of Chad, a football safety and baseball reliever, and his brother Rahim Alem, a football defensive end -- walked through the aisles of Rosenblatt Stadium, he almost seemed to walk with a limp. (His sons gave him a championship ring for Father's Day last year. He was also sporting a Sugar Bowl watch. "They get the glory, but I get the hardware," Jones, a high school principal in New Orleans, said with a proud smile.)

Though Mitchell hasn't signed a contract, all signs point toward the first-rounder becoming a pro very soon after the College World Series. When an LSU fan shouted "one more year" after the game, Mitchell didn't look up from the T-shirt he was autographing -- intent on getting the young lady's name right, he even asked her to repeat the spelling -- and just shook his head, chuckling to himself.

For now, the only dreams he's vocalizing pertain to the Tigers he's helped put one game away from a College World Series title.

"The goal wasn't just to come here," Mitchell said, "it was to win here."

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