OMAHA, Neb. — Jay Johnson texted Nate Ackenhausen at 8:56 a.m. Tuesday to let him know he would make his first start for LSU less than 12 hours later in a game against Tennessee with the Tigers’ season on the line.
Ackenhausen said he slept in and didn’t get back to his coach until shortly after 11.
“I texted him that I would give it all I’ve got,” the big left-hander said.
Ackenhausen did that and then some, pitching six innings and combining with Riley Cooper for the Tigers’ nation-leading 11th shutout of the season, a 5-0 victory in the Men’s College World Series.
“When you’re on this side of the bracket, you need that,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to do something here, you need a performance like Nate gave us.”
LSU (50-16) beat its SEC rival for the fourth time in five meetings — and the second time in Omaha — and will play No. 1 national seed Wake Forest on Wednesday night. The Tigers would have to beat the Demon Deacons in that game and again Thursday to reach the MCWS finals.
Tennessee (44-22) was eliminated after it failed to score for the first time in 133 games since a 6-0 loss to Virginia in the 2021 MCWS.
Ackenhausen came into the game having logged 22⅓ innings over 15 relief appearances. He had not gone more than 3⅔ innings since he was a starter for Eastern Oklahoma State last year.
LSU’s third starter has been fluid most of the season, and Johnson said he played a hunch and went with Ackenhausen because the Tigers were 13-2 in games in which he appeared. Johnson also said he liked some of the matchups and was confident the laid-back Ackenhausen would not be fazed by the stage.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder ended up outdueling Drew Beam, a projected high pick in the 2024 draft who was coming off strong starts in regionals and super regionals.
“That’s a good ballclub over there,” Beam said. “But it was never out of reach. It didn’t happen today. It’s baseball. Just the way the tree falls sometimes.”
Johnson said his hope was for Ackenhausen to pitch three innings, maybe throw 60 pitches and face about 12 batters.
“He accomplished a lot more than that,” Johnson said.
Ackenhausen threw 93 pitches and faced 24 batters in his six-plus innings, helping to keep the bullpen fresh for what the Tigers hope will be two games against Wake Forest.
The Tigers scored single runs in the first and sixth innings and another in the eighth when Tennessee relievers hit three batters and Tre’ Morgan came home on a wild pitch. Dylan Crews’ two-run homer in the ninth put the game away.
Beam, who left with two outs in the sixth, allowed six hits, walked two and struck out nine.
Ackenhausen had allowed four hits, walked none and struck out seven when he left to a standing ovation from fans behind the LSU dugout after he hit Blake Burke to start the seventh. Burke was the third batter he plunked, and pitchers for both teams combined for seven hit batters, the third most in a MCWS game.
“He had excellent command at the start of the game, and then as the game went on a little bit, there were some mistakes he made out of the zone, whether it be hit by pitch or something like that,” Vols coach Tony Vitello said. “But then he kept his composure, regathered and did well. It takes two to tango. We didn’t capitalize on mistakes as well as they did.”
Ackenhausen mixed his low-90s fastball with a slider and changeup he developed while making 10 starts in junior college last year. He said a strong wind blowing in from center field gave him confidence against an opponent that has hit 126 homers.
“High school, I started all four years. Got to junior college and we had three pitchers topping out at 100 and they all started,” he said. “So I learned how to pitch out of the stretch. The second year I took over because they all left, and that really helped me figure out how to throw a changeup. I didn’t throw a changeup in high school. I’d say today the changeup is probably what helped me the most.”