Only about 45 minutes after LSU’s NCAA Baton Rouge Regional championship 5-0 verdict over exhausted Rice Sunday night at Alex Box Stadium did Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri allow himself to finally exhale.
“I know it says LSU on our chests and people think we’re supposed to win,” said Mainieri, whose team was a No. 1 regional seed and a No. 4 national seed. “But these games are tough, man, these games are hard to win.”
You don’t need to tell North Carolina coach Mark Fox about it. He had a career record of 18-1 against Davidson, a team No. 2-ranked UNC once beat 25 straight times. Yet in a span of three days, Davidson beat the regional top-seeded Tar Heels twice on their home field, including a 2-1 victory Sunday to advance to the Super Regionals.
Same thing for retiring Stanford coach Mark Marquess, whose glorious 41-year career came to an abrupt halt when his No. 1 regional-seeded Cardinal were eliminated by Cal-State Fullerton.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan isn’t going home for the year yet, but his Gators have been pushed to the brink in the Gainesville Regional. They’ll play Bethune Cookman for the regional title Monday after the Wildcats, previously 1-31 lifetime against the Gators, stunned them with a 6-2 victory Sunday.
In fact, nine of the No. 1 seeds in the 16 regionals lost at least one game.
But LSU, despite some shaky innings in Friday’s 15-7 victory over Texas Southern and Saturday’s 11-6 decision over Southeastern Louisiana, played like a team all three days determined to advance to host a Super Regional after it was swept at home in last year’s Super Regional by eventual national champion Coastal Carolina.
“I’ve been preparing for this weekend since Coastal Carolina walked off our field last year,” said LSU senior shortstop Kramer Robertson, the undisputed leader of a 46-17 team that has won 14 straight games in which the Tigers have outscored opponents 118-38. “I’ve thought about it every single day. I’ve had nights tossing and turning thinking about it.
“Throughout the year, you try not to think about it or think ahead because you have to take care of the job at hand.
“But this is the job at hand now. There’s nothing more than I want to win two more games than to get to Omaha. It’s something I’ve dreamed about as a kid. It’s why I came to LSU. It’s why I came back to my school my senior year as well as two other guys.
“I’ve prepared myself the last 350-something days for this weekend.”
The opponent will be either Southern Mississippi or Mississippi State, which got swept by the Tigers in a three-game series three weeks ago that allowed LSU to win the SEC’s West Division title and then a piece of the league regular-season championship along with East champ Florida.
The Bulldogs must beat Southern Miss twice Monday to get another crack at the Tigers, who don’t care who they play next because they know there is a next.
LSU wasn’t as perfect and dominating the last few days as it was in the SEC Tournament a week ago.
But all the elements of why the Tigers are still one of the hottest teams in the nation right now are still intact, such as:
Three solid starting pitchers, including true freshman Eric Walker, who, for the third straight weekend, shut down opposing bats to help the Tigers win a championship.
“He’s a real pitcher, there’s no doubt about that,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said of Walker, just a year removed from being a standout quarterback/pitcher for Arlington (Texas) Martin High. “You rarely see someone like that. He has a purpose with every pitch and most of the time he carries out that purpose.”
Ten different Tigers drove in runs in this regional, from leadoff hitter Robertson through nine-hole hitter freshman first baseman Jake Slaughter, who had a key RBI single Sunday.
“There’s not a down spot in our lineup right now,” said LSU freshman third baseman Josh Smith, who had an RBI double to open LSU’s scoring against the Owls, who had to beat Southeastern Sunday afternoon to get a shot at the Tigers. “We’re hitting the ball better than most teams in the country right now.
“It’s special when the (opposing) pitcher has no breaks. He gets one guy out, and he’s got to face a tough hitter. Even if the guy’s not smashing the ball, he’s having a good at-bat, walking, hitting the ball hard and just trying to get to the pitcher.”
Finally, there’s LSU fielding, which aside from Friday’s five-error aberration Friday vs. Texas Southern, has been virtually flawless all season. After the TSU miscues, the Tigers didn’t have a single error against Southeastern Louisiana or Rice.
“Great defense is the key,” said Walker, who improved to 8-1 after another game of pitching within himself and letting his defense do the heavy lifting. “Being a contact pitcher with a great defense behind me really helps. With this defense that we’ve got, it makes it a lot easier.”
But perhaps the best characteristic about this Tigers’ team, Mainieri’s 11th trying to get to Omaha for the fifth time, is it understands nothing is a done deal until it’s done.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Robertson said. “We’ve experienced it in the past, and we used it to motivate us this year. So regardless if we’re a No. 1 team, as you just saw, anything can happen. It’s important to take one pitch at a time, and not look at the overall. We’ll be ready to go.”