ESPN: LSU a fitting champion following the greatest series ever

Ryan McGee
ESPN Senior Writer
Jun 27, 2023, 12:03 AM ET


OMAHA, Neb. — The Men’s College World Series old-timers have been digging through the memory banks for nearly two weeks, all with the same question.

“Has this been the greatest College World Series I’ve ever seen? Hmmm,” Jack Dotson paused and thought.

It was Monday, about five hours before the national title-deciding Game 3 of the 2023 Men’s College World Series finals between LSU and Florida. The retiree from “way west of here” was standing in the parking lot of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. He’d brought his grandson there to see where Rosenblatt Stadium, host of the MCWS from 1950 to 2010, once stood. Now there’s a small commemorative ballpark replica where kids can play in old ballpark seats and cross the home plate spot that was once college baseball’s most hallowed ground.

“I’ve probably been to 50 games between here and the new ballpark downtown. Most years you could sleep through a few games and not miss anything,” Dotson said. “I don’t think any[one] has slept through anything this year!”

From Game 1 on Friday, June 16, when Omaha party crasher Oral Roberts homered in the ninth inning to erase a three-run deficit and defeat TCU by one run, all the way through LSU’s 18-4 victory over Florida in the 16th and final game Monday night, that same query was posed over and over again.

“Best series we’ve ever seen?” Greg Pivovar, longtime owner of Stadium View Sports Cards, once the social hub of the Rosenblatt years, looked around his shop at MCWS memorabilia spanning decades of series gone by — posters and programs featuring everyone from Dave Winfield and Roger Clemens to Buster Posey and Pete Incaviglia — and surrendered. “Yeah, man. I’ve been thinking about that for a week. I’ve got nothing better.”

In the end, one of the pillar programs of college baseball, LSU, earned its seventh college baseball national title, moving into second place alone, trailing only USC’s 12, all but one of which were won in 1978 and earlier.

That ORU-TCU game was merely the first of a record-tying eight one-run contests, including six of the first eight played. The two early outliers weren’t exactly yawners, a pair of late scrambles involving Tennessee, a 6-3 near-rally loss to LSU and a 6-4 squeaker over Stanford. As each of those games went into the scoring book, the “best-ever” discussion only grew louder. Even in places where you’re supposed to be quiet.

“I have loved it so much it has made me feel like a teenager again! Oh …” Tina Johnson caught herself, threw her hands to her mouth and looked to see if anyone around her thought she was disturbing the peace. The Omaha native who now lives in Chicago was standing in the General Crook House Museum, located about 5 miles north of Charles Schwab Field, aka The Chuck, the ballpark where today’s teams spent their summer rewriting the MCWS history books. Travelers and locals alike serenely strolled through a “History of Baseball in Omaha” exhibit. “I grew up going to College World Series games. I think I sat in some of these old seats in this museum. Think about what these seats have seen.”

They saw moments. They saw future MLB stars. They saw walk-off wins. They saw records broken. They saw classic games. But never did they see a week and a half packed with so much of all the above that we don’t have enough space allocated in this corner of our website to list it all. Here are the highlights:

1. A whopping eight games that were decided by one run, tying a mark reached only twice in 75 prior editions of the series.

2. Three teams overcoming a deficit of three or more runs, tied for the most since the MCWS moved to The Chuck in 2011.

3. Thirty home runs hit, the most since 2010 (32), the year before the MCWS moved downtown.

4. Florida hit 17 home runs total, tying a record set by both LSU and USC in 1998.

5. Florida’s Ty Evans hit five homers to set an MCWS record, leaving behind the 11 guys before him who’d hit four, all having done their work at much hitter-friendlier Rosenblatt Stadium. He came to Omaha having hit four all year, over 65 games.

6. The longest home run hit in the 12 MCWS hosted by that “new ballpark downtown” was blasted by Florida’s Wyatt Langford, landing 456 feet from home plate and capping a Gators comeback from three runs down in the ninth inning to beat Virginia and avoid the losers’ bracket.

7. Two pitchers, LSU’s Paul Skenes and Wake Forest’s Rhett Lowder, set two school and one conference K’s record in the same game, a winner-faces-Florida semifinal which, oh by the way, was also immediately in the conversation for greatest MCWS games ever played, won via walk-off homer in the 11th inning after becoming the first 0-0 game to enter extra frames since 1985 and only the second since metal bats were introduced in 1974.

Honestly, this list could keep going. The ridiculously long roster of future MLB draft first-rounders (six of the top 10 in the projected MLB draft appeared in this MCWS), the hard drive full of impossible defensive plays made, including perhaps another best ever, the scoop-and-throw home by LSU first baseman Tre’ Morgan that set up that semifinal win over Wake.

So, surely, as the 2023 MCWS headed into the finals, there was nothing remaining in the drawer marked “Stuff We Haven’t Seen Yet,” right? Well, to quote noted philosopher and mathlete Cady Heron: Wrong. So wrong.

As if one walk-off from Tommy White against Wake Forest weren’t enough, Cade Beloso launched another game winner in Game 1 of the finals, delivering the first extra-inning round-tripper in the 20 years since the MCWS went back to a best-of-three championship format. In that same game, LSU’s Ty Floyd had 17 strikeouts, the most in an MCWS game since 1972 and tied for the second most all-time. LSU’s Dylan Crews won the Golden Spikes Award and became the first player to win a national title the same year he won the award since 1995 and Cal State Fullerton’s Mark Kotsay, a face chiseled onto every college baseball historian’s MCWS Mount Rushmore.

Heck, even the only two lopsided scores of the month, both of which came in the final two games of the MCWS, made history. Florida’s 24-4 win in Game 2 was the biggest beatdown in MCWS finals history and the second-largest win in any MCWS game. When LSU responded with an 18-4 butt-kicking of Florida in the clincher, it went against trends, only the fourth time in the past 11 MCWS that a team lost Game 2 of the finals but came back to win the title in Game 3. No team had scored more than six runs in a game in this year’s MCWS before Game 2 of the title series. No team had ever scored 18 or more runs in an MCWS game at The Chuck, and then it happened in consecutive days … by opposing teams.

And then the Tigers won it all on Monday and set one last record in the process. Their 24 hits were the most cracked off the bats of any team to participate in a Men’s College World Series game, 592 squads of baseball players from 1947 through Monday night.

It’s exhausting, right? But only because the series was so exhilarating. Only because the best route that one can take in an attempt to see where 2023 measures up is to do that quite literally by way of numbers in a 76-year-old record book.

But for anyone who watched these games contested in this place during this June — and using another set of numbers in the form of TV ratings, a lot of people did — they know that what makes this series stand out and at the very least stand alongside the greatest ever played, isn’t about stats or spreadsheets. It’s about the heart rate monitor. It’s about smiles. It’s about magic.

Heck, it didn’t even rain this month. Not even a sprinkle.

“To me, what makes a great College World Series is the whole picture,” 85-year-old Skip Berman explained during the opening days of the 2023 edition, in town to support LSU, the program he pulled from the scrap heap to turn into a juggernaut, winning its first five titles as head coach. “You have the series that ended amazingly, like us in 1996 [see: Warren Morris walk-off homer barely clearing the right-field fence to beat Miami]. You have the years with some great games in the middle of the week. And you have a couple of really can’t-miss players that you know will be Major League All-Stars. But as long as I’ve been coming here, since 1978 [as a Miami assistant], it’s hard to remember one that had all of that the whole time.”

This one did. Served up via a slow-cooked 11-day perfect recipe that had all of those ingredients. A heaping cup of close games. A can of walk-offs. A sprinkle of defense. A dash of weirdness. And a couple of pounds of memories made.

“I am a college baseball guy and I love this game so much,” LSU head coach Jay Johnson said on the field at The Chuck, his newly engraved 2023 Men’s College World Series championship trophy sitting nearby. As the 46-year-old spoke, the anchor of his team, soon-to-be big leaguer Dylan Crews, draped his arm around the coach’s shoulders. “I don’t see how anyone could have watched any of this series, from beginning to end, and not come away loving this sport, too. Years from now, I think everyone who played or coached in this series will still look at each other and say, ‘Can you believe that happened?'”

Nash Sanderson