In Omaha, Skenes and Lowder Toss A Game That Will Be Remembered For Decades

LSU pitcher Paul Skenes throws to a Wake Forest batter during the fifth inning in a baseball game at the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, June 22, 2023. (AP Photo/John Peterson)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

OMAHA, Neb. – It was the matchup college baseball fans – especially those who enjoy watching great pitching – had been waiting for.

Paul Skenes, who started for Louisiana State, and Rhett Lowder, Wake Forest’s ace, are arguably college baseball’s two brightest pitching prospects, and on Thursday night, they showed why on college baseball’s biggest stage by throwing the game of their lives. Two potential first round draft picks, each with blazing fastballs, dueling in the Nebraska sunshine in an elimination game at Charles Schwab Field, a trip to the College World Series final on the line.

Two great pitchers traded 1-2-3 innings like heavyweights trade punches, each leaving the game in the late innings having stifled the opposing offense, a full stadium waiting for a denouement, neither giving an inch. 

“The best-pitched college baseball game I have ever seen from both sides. Obviously what Paul did was spectacular, what Thatcher [Hurd] did was spectacular,” said LSU head coach Jay Johnson, who’s club won 2-0 on a two-run homer by Tommy White in the bottom of the 11th. “You know, you might see four pitchers that were on that mound tonight from both teams that will pitch in Major League Baseball All-Star games.”

There’s not a word of understatement there. 

Skenes hit 99 mph with his opening pitch to Wake Forest’s Tommy Hawke, and followed it up with a 100 mph heater, announcing his presence with authority. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound junior, leads the nation in ERA, posting a 1.81 mark going into Thursday’s game against the Demon Deacons, and he’s MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 prospect for the upcoming draft. He might be picked first overall, and Thursday’s performance only puts polish on his sparkling college baseball resume.

For Skenes, there was never any doubt that he’d start this game if called upon, despite having thrown 7.2 innings against Tennessee here in Omaha just five days ago.

“I knew everyone was going to do everything in their power to get me ready,” Skenes said. “Everyone’s gonna get everyone else on the staff ready to pitch, you know… But there was no doubt in my mind, and to be honest there wasn’t a lot of conversation.”

In the second inning, Skenes struck out Justin Johnson for his 203rd career strikeout at LSU, eclipsing the mark set by Ben McDonald in 1989, to end the second of five 1-2-3 innings he’d throw.

Lowder gave up a single to LSU leadoff man Dylan Crews in the top of the first and didn’t allow another hit until Gavin Dugas singled to right in the fourth. Lowder’s only blemish was the sixth inning two-out double by the Tigers third baseman Tommy White, but that threat – one of only two times LSU got a runner into scoring position – was neutralized when Tre’ Morgan’s screaming liner was deftly gloved by Wake Forest third baseman Brock Wilken.

Lowder threw just 88 pitches through seven innings, 73 of them for strikes, a remarkably efficient outing, before handing the ball off to the Demon Deacons bullpen. 

In the top of the eighth, Skenes issued a four-pitch walk to Johnson, which was the 20th walk he’d issued in the 2023 season. Twenty walks in 122.2 innings pitched over the entire season – barely more than one per game.

He’d get out of his only jam of the evening – runners on first and third with one out, when Tre’ Morgan’s fantastic play on a squeeze bunt by Marek Houston got the ball to catcher Alex Milazzo in time to get Johnson at the plate.

Skenes went a little deeper into the night, going eight full innings before handing the pill off to Thatcher Hurd, who earned the win. Together, the Tigers two tossers twirled 11 innings of three-hit shutout baseball, walking two and striking out 10.

The tension built, with 23,993 hanging on every pitch, and the game spilled into the 10th inning and then the 11th, and Dylan Crews led off the bottom of the frame with a single, and Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter lifted Michael Massey in favor of Camden Minacci.

Minacci’s first offering to Tommy White ended up somewhere beyond the left field wall, the ping of the ball hitting the bat still reverberating in the Omaha night as the Tigers stormed the field to celebrate a 2-0 win.

One bad pitch, one hanging slider, and it was suddenly and dramatically over.

In May of 1981, two future MLB All-Stars faced off in a NCAA Regional game, the story of which continues to be told 42 years on. Frank Viola took the mound for St. John’s against Yale’s Ron Darling, and they combined to throw 23 innings and allow eight total hits in a game Yale won 1-0 that was immortalized in The New Yorker by Roger Angell, who sat with a 91-year-old Smoky Joe Wood in the stands at Yale Field.

Angell and others have said that was the greatest college baseball game ever played. 

But did you see that game in 2023 between LSU and Wake Forest?

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