By James Bewers
There’s a reason #LSUInvitational gets thrown around on Twitter as the end of May approaches.
The hashtag is a not so subtle reminder of the Tigers’ dominance in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, a place where the Tigers (48-10) have won 11 titles and claimed five of the last eight.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri may jokingly refer to the water in Hoover, Ala., as the source of the Tigers success at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, but even he can’t truly pinpoint why his team has had a stranglehold on the league tournament since he took over in Baton Rouge.
In the past, the SEC Tournament actually meant a little more than just conference bragging rights for the Tigers. Take last year, for example, when LSU’s run through Hoover propelled the Tigers to a top-eight national seed on Selection Monday. Although the Tigers eventually faltered in the Baton Rouge Regional, the tournament crown placed the Tigers in the driver’s seat with a trip to the College World Series running through Alex Box Stadium.
This year was probably the least vital tournament appearance for LSU in recent memory. Mainieri’s club, entering as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation and the SEC regular season champion, had already locked up a top-eight national seed. Even a 0-2 outing in Hoover would have done little to the Tigers chances of securing at least a top-five overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Plus, recent history reveals that winning the tournament hasn’t been conducive to achievement in Omaha, Neb.
Three of last five College World Series Champions have come from the SEC. None of those three teams won the SEC tournament with only Florida – the 2011 conference tournament winner – reaching the championship round in Omaha. The 2009 LSU team was the last team to win the league tournament and win the College World Series.
Looking at LSU’s 2-1 performance in the 2015 SEC baseball tournament, which is formatted unfavorably for team’s coming from the winners’ bracket, the result isn’t what was important. How the Tigers played was a bit of an uneven showing.
The offense (19 totals runs and 20 total hits in Hoover) and the bullpen were very much present in the first two games against Auburn and Arkansas. This balanced out poor showings from starting pitchers Jared Poche’ and Austin Bain. With Tiger ace hurler Alex Lange on the mound for the semifinals against Florida, the opposite was true. Lange’s scoreless seven innings of work with seven strikeouts couldn’t offset an offense incapable of producing runs and a bullpen unable to secure the lead in a 2-1 elimination loss.
“We had nine hits but only one run,” Mainieri said after the semifinal loss. “That means we didn’t come through in clutch situations. It was a tough loss for us because we came here to win this tournament. We wanted to win it for the third time a row, but we just didn’t quite play well enough.”
The sentiments from the ultra-competitive coach should be a positive sign for the purple and gold faithful. Anytime championships are on the table, Mainieri and his club want to return home with a trophy. But through the course of a season, the lessons learned are sometimes more important than the outcome.
In a situation where LSU had nothing to lose and nothing to gain in terms of NCAA tournament seeding, the lesson learned should be the need for balance in all facets of the game against superior competition.
LSU may have what it takes to capture its seventh national championship, but the experience in Hoover may have been more critical than adding more hardware to the trophy case.