By Trey Mongrue
If it were up to Paul Mainieri, enough has been done.
Behind lights out pitching and an overpowering offense, the LSU Tigers made quick work of Auburn over the weekend to record their second Southeastern Conference series sweep of the season and the first while on the road. It was a significant weekend for the Tigers in that the three wins propelled them from sixth to third place in the final SEC Standings, securing a bye for this week’s conference tournament in Hoover, Ala.
In addition, it also puts the Tigers’ win total at 40, which has been a magic number of sorts in past seasons. Since the NCAA adopted the Super Regional postseason format in 1999, LSU has reached the 40-win-plateau before postseason play four previous times and subsequently hosted a regional in each of those seasons.
“We have the least amount of overall losses of the teams in the SEC and outside of Florida we have the least amount of losses in SEC play,” Mainieri said on Monday before the team departed for Alabama. “That’s a pretty good year and I think that deserves a regional host, but I’m not the decision maker, so we’ll just deal with it as it comes.”
Unfortunately, for LSU’s sake, Mainieri has no say in what the NCAA selection committee ultimately decides this Sunday when it announces the 16 regional host sites. But, that won’t stop the Tigers’ head coach from voicing his displeasure as LSU heads to Hoover while not exactly knowing what needs to be done to secure the third consecutive regional at Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field.
“It’s all speculation, I don’t know how they calculate and I don’t know what conversations take place behind closed doors,” said Mainieri. “I genuinely believe that there is nothing but tremendous integrity and people doing what they think is best, but where you sit is where you stand and I feel like we’ve earned it.”
While the Tigers have 40 wins under their belt and a high finish in the country’s toughest conference, they are also behind four SEC teams in the latest RPI (ratings percentage index) rankings and have the lowest strength of schedule rating out of the 14 teams in the conference.
With supposedly only a couple of host bids up for grabs, LSU finds itself in a figurative beauty contest against teams like Houston, TCU, Texas Tech, Cal Poly, Louisville and Washington.
If LSU does find itself on the wrong end of the selection process, Mainieri hopes that it’s not because of the Tigers’ schedule strength, which – while relatively low in the SEC – still has a significantly higher rating than that of Cal Poly, Washington and Louisville.
“RPI takes into account strength of schedule,” he explained. “So if your RPI is 13, 15 or whatever it is, your strength of schedule is already taken into account. So don’t tell me that we aren’t going to get a site because of our strength of schedule.
“If that is held against you along with the RPI, then it’s like double jeopardy.”
In theory, LSU being on the host bubble makes its performance this week all the more important. The NCAA is scheduled to announce the host sites some time on Sunday before the outcome of the SEC Tournament championship game, so a second straight title for LSU won’t factor in, but the three wins to get to that point should all but lock up a regional.
That is, if the committee decides that wins in a conference tournament are important this year.
“When we won the tournament in 2010, we got sent to UCLA and the committee came out and said that conference tournaments don’t play that much of a role,” recalled Mainieri. “And then there are other years when you don’t do well and the team still gets a positive decision from the committee.”
On top of that inconsistency in judgment, there have been times when the selection committee simply picked the teams by going down the RPI list, such as in 2012 when Florida was awarded the top national seed despite not even winning the SEC East that season. Other times, RPI has not been the end all-be all. Mainieri experienced that first hand in 2011 when LSU was left out despite an RPI in the low twenties.
And there is where Mainieri’s real frustrations with the selection process lie. There has never been a set list of guidelines as to what makes a postseason team and what doesn’t.
“What irritates me is that the committee sometimes, to rationalize its decisions, use numbers however they want to,” he said. “One of the big things is how you do in the last 15 games. In 2011, we went 12-3 in our last 15 games but don’t even get a bid with an RPI of 21 and a 36-20 record.
“You look at Kentucky right now with a record of 32-22 with an RPI of 22 and nobody is talking about them possibly not making the NCAA tournament. From year to year everything changes and that’s frustrating.”
With the cloud of an unknown postseason future hanging around Mainieri, he can find comfort in excitement with what is in front of his ballclub. Regions Park has been very kind to him throughout his tenure, with LSU winning four tournament championships in the five trips that Mainieri has led the Tigers to.
With Jared Poché set to pitch on Wednesday and Aaron Nola to follow, the Tigers are set up for yet another deep run.
“We just always seem to go to Hoover and play well and I hope that we can continue that this year,” Mainieri mentioned. “Obviously, we will be playing great teams there like we do every year, but our players just really look forward to it because It’s one of the more enjoyable times of the year for them.
“We think what we do there still probably has something to do with our résumé for the NCAA tournament.”
Whether it will be enough to bring college baseball back to Baton Rouge remains to be seen.