LSU on its way back to CWS
BATON ROUGE, La. -- After LSU failed to make the College World Series for a third straight season in 2012, head coach Paul Mainieri called infielder Mason Katz and asked him if he wanted to accept an invitation to participate in the CWS home run derby.
Katz gladly accepted.
"And [Mainieri] said 'Good, I want you to have experience there for when you take the team there next year,'" Katz recalled.
That Katz and the Tigers have made it to the College World Series sort of brings that story to its happy ending, but what's odd about the story is who it's about.
LSU? Stranger to Omaha?
In the quick turnaround world of college sports, a three-year absence brought LSU's senior class within a year of becoming the first at LSU since the 1980s not to make it to the CWS. That's a little bit like a Duke senior class not making a Final Four or an Alabama senior class not winning the SEC football title.
LSU's dominance in college baseball is well known. The Tigers have six national championships, all since 1991, five of which came under legendary coach Skip Bertman. Current coach Paul Mainieri guided the Tigers to their sixth national title in 2009.
That was at old Rosenblatt Stadium, which was replaced by Omaha's shiny new TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. While many joked that Rosenblatt was "Alex Box North," a reference to LSU's Alex Box stadium and a nod to LSU's success at Rosenblatt, LSU will need to get a feel for the new park.
In 2011, the first year for a CWS at the new stadium, LSU failed to make the NCAA tournament. In 2012, the Tigers were heavy favorites to make it to Omaha, but were shocked in a super regional by lightly-regarded No. 4 seed Stony Brook.
As far as experience at the new ballpark, even Stony Brook has more of it than the Tigers.
"I'm going to be like the 'Hoosiers' guy," said Mainieri, referencing fictional basketball coach Norman Dale, portrayed by Gene Hackman, in the classic 1986 film. "The bases are still 90 feet apart, and the mound is 60-feet, 6-inches from home plate."
In Hoosiers, Dale measured the goal at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse to demonstrate to his tiny high school team that the court dimensions at such a big venue were exactly the same as his own team's home gym.
That, of course, is hardly analogous to LSU. While the Tigers have indeed been absent from TD Ameritrade Park for its short history, the Tigers have hardly lost relevance in the college baseball world. At 57-9, LSU is one win away from a school record for wins in a season. The Tigers won the SEC tournament and set attendance records while sweeping Oklahoma in the super regional.
And while LSU is the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the Tigers finished the regular season No. 1 in almost all the major college baseball polls, a sign of respect the program still gets despite its recent absences from Omaha.
"At LSU, the goal is to win national championships," said outfielder Raph Rhymes who, along with Katz, is a senior who opted to return to school for his senior season rather than leave for pro ball specifically in an effort to get to Omaha for the first time in their college careers.
"Anything less than that and all that other stuff doesn't matter."
That approach has led to this LSU team playing with cool precision. Led by unflappable ace Aaron Nola (12-0, 1.68), Tigers pitchers strike out almost three times as many batters as they walk. Led by national freshman of the year Alex Bregman, the Tigers bat over .300 as a team and defensively, the Tigers commit barely more than half as many errors as their opponents.
Those are the statistics of a team that, despite its accomplishments, remains consistently focused.
"That's what gives me a lot of confidence about the team," Mainieri said. "I just feel like they've had a lot thrown at them and they've been able to keep their focus and their concentration when they need to."
LSU may not have played a game at TD Ameritrade Park yet, but the Tigers certainly carry themselves like they belong.