When the field for this weekend’s Baton Rouge Regional was announced yesterday, it offered those of us with more recall of the program’s history than is necessary or even healthy a dose of deja vu.
The field for this year’s regional? LSU is the top seed, followed by North Carolina-Wilmington, Tulane and Lehigh.
In 2003, LSU was the top seed, followed by UNC-W, Tulane and Northeastern.
Nearly an identical field, and it’s even more uncanny when you look at the super regional this group is paired against. This year LSU is paired with Houston, a school with whom LSU has postseason experience enough, in addition to Rice, UL-Lafayette and Houston Baptist. In 2003, it was Southern Miss, a team who until recently was a conference foe of the Cougars, Baylor, a prominent private Texas University like Rice is, Southern, the Louisiana team traveling to a regional, and Murray State.
LSU beat Baylor in the 2003 Super Regional to go to Omaha, where they were beaten in successive games by Cal State Fullerton and South Carolina. That can’t happen this year, since South Carolina didn’t make the tournament, but LSU could play Texas A&M, an SEC foe, in the first game in Omaha and might conceivably face a loser’s bracket game with Cal State Fullerton – who is on LSU’s side of the bracket – if they were to lose the first game.
Why all the history? Well, not just because a regional with Tulane and UNC-Wilmington brings it to mind.
History of a more recent vintage is actually a lot more meaningful.
Namely, that it has been six long years since head coach Paul Mainieri’s 2009 LSU team won it all at the College World Series. In that time LSU has made only one trip to Omaha, and with a team not dissimilar to this one. But the 2013 club which made the trip to the CWS got off the plane in Omaha with a 57-9 record and got back on a plane for Baton Rouge with a 57-11 record after two quick losses.
This LSU team stands at 48-10, just missing the top national seed in the NCAA Tournament – which would have been a first in school history.
In that six-year dry spell are three years in a row in which Mainieri completed outstanding regular seasons and had LSU as a national seed heading into the tournament, and yet failed to post a single victory in Omaha. In two of the three seasons, 2012 and 2014, the Tigers stumbled prior to making the CWS trip. In 2012, it was the upstart Stony Brook who shocked the Tigers in an NCAA Super Regional, ruining a 47-18 season by taking two of three at Alex Box Stadium.
And last year, it was Houston who upset LSU in consecutive games to finish a 46-16-1 season for the Tigers well short of Omaha.
In the last three seasons Mainieri has gone 47-18, 57-11 and 46-16-1 and failed to win a single game in Omaha (this year’s LSU team, at 48-10, is basically on par with the 2013 team). This is a source of some consternation for LSU’s longtime baseball fans, reared as they were on Skip Bertman’s five national championship seasons in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 2000.
Interestingly enough, Bertman generally didn’t post the gaudy records Mainieri has in his good years. In fact, in only one of the national title years, 1997, was LSU’s regular season record on par with the 2013 team in terms of final record – that team finished 57-13. In the other years ending in titles Bertman finished 55-18 (1991), 53-17-1 (1993), 52-15 (1996) and 52-17 (2000). Bertman’s other College World Series teams often posted records not as good as what Mainieri has put together in the past three seasons – 55-18 in 1986, 49-19 in 1987, 55-17 in 1989, 54-19 in 1990, 46-20 in 1994 and 48-19 in 1998.
Mainieri’s teams have averaged 15 losses per season in the three years prior to this one. Bertman’s five national champion teams averaged 16 losses.
Does this suggest anything? Perhaps that Mainieri is delivering teams to the field of similar – if not even perhaps superior – quality to those Bertman built his dynasty from, but the magic of delivering peak performance in championship circumstances has – outside of the 2009 season – eluded him in a way it did not with Bertman.
It’s hardly a fair comparison, of course. Even Bertman has said on multiple occasions that he doubts he would have been able to deliver the spate of championships in more modern times given the increasing competitiveness of college baseball and the limits on competitive advantage – rules on scholarship distribution, roster limits and so forth – in place today which were not in the 1990’s. Furthermore, Bertman was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, college baseball coaches of all time. Comparing anyone’s exploits to his can only be seen as terribly unfair.
Most people understand this, and yet the fan expectations at LSU remain as they were when Bertman was coaching. This is still a program with the yearly goal of getting to Omaha and at least making noise there if not winning the whole thing.
And it is now the 6th year since that was last accomplished.
There is obviously pressure on this team to post results commensurate with its No. 2 national seed. To transcend history, at least that of recent vintage. Mainieri needs a respite from the postseason disappointments of the past few years.
In that vein, this week’s field should provide an environment for just such a respite. LSU’s three opponents in the regional don’t offer anything particularly alarming.
Mainieri is saving his two best pitchers for the Saturday and Sunday games, which likely means he’ll be throwing either inconsistent freshman Austin Bain, inconsistent freshman Jake Godfrey, struggling senior Kyle Bouman or some combination of LSU’s deep bullpen against a 25-29 Lehigh team on Friday which looks for all the world like they’ll be in Baton Rouge far more for the experience than the victory…
Lehigh will send senior left-hander Nick Macaione, who despite a 3-4 record has a solid 2.82 ERA and actually threw a complete-game no-hitter on Feb. 28 against Iona. Opponents hit just .211 against him this year. But Macaioine hasn’t faced a batting order anything like LSU; in fact, Macaione hasn’t had a start against a team ranked under 200 in the RPI ratings all season.
Lehigh has problems far worse than Macaione’s lack of exposure to top-flight hitters. As a team they field a substandard .959 and hit a pedestrian .266, though 39 home runs in 54 games is evidence there is some power in the lineup. The Mountain Hawks’ top three hitters all hit above .300, with a good leadoff man in center fielder Justin Pacchioli (.348, 31 SB) and a very capable 3-hole hitter in second baseman Mike Garzillo (.363, 16 2B, 13 HR, 54 RBI, 15 SB). The middle of the order has three hitters with mediocre batting averages but decent power, and the bottom of the order consists of very light hitters. An LSU pitcher who can throw strikes and keep the ball low in the zone should have little trouble making fast work of this team – and LSU’s hitters are most likely too much for Macaione.
Assuming a win over the Mountain Hawks, LSU will send freshman star pitcher Alex Lange against either UNC-Wilmington or Tulane in the winner’s bracket game.
Wilmington is the No. 2 seed and the likely favorite to win on Friday, though in a regular-season matchup Tulane beat them 8-4 on March 31. UNCW boasts a strong .306 team batting average, runs well with 77 stolen bases on the season and has decent power with 44 home runs on the year (they’re led by three players with six home runs each; three more have five home runs). But what they don’t do well is defense; UNCW has a .959 fielding percentage just like Lehigh does. As for pitching, UNCW’s strength comes in the bullpen with four relivers boasting ERA’s under 3.00 – the best of whom being Justin Ramsey (8-2, 1.60 ERA, 7 saves, .194 BAA, 60 strikeouts in 45 innings against only 10 walks). The team’s ERA isn’t impressive at 4.43, a testament to the struggles of their starters.
Tulane is the opposite. They pitch very well, with a 3.13 team ERA. All five of their key pitchers boast ERA’s of 3.38 or below. They’re a quality defensive team with a fielding percentage of .973. But what they can;’t do is hit; Tulane’s team batting average is a mere .252, and only one hitter, shortstop Stephen Alemais, hits above .300. Worse, Tulane has only 29 home runs on the season and has stolen just 50 bases. Those numbers make them, at least statistically, the worst offensive team in the regional by far.
Compare the statistics of the other three teams in the regional to LSU, and there is little reason to believe any of them can get past the top seed. UNC-W is the best of the bunch at a team batting average of .306; LSU hits .321. UNCW has hit 44 home runs, which is close to LSU’s 47. Lehigh has 84 stolen bases, not quite as many as LSU’s 110. Tulane’s .973 fielding percentage is good, but LSU’s .976 is better. Tulane’s team ERA of 3.13 doesn’t quite match up to LSU’s 2.96.
It ought to be a fun weekend at the Box. But for this LSU team, the fun will only start in Omaha – and even then, likely not until LSU has won a game there.