By Trey Mongrue
For the past nine or so years, there has been one day in January where a handful of people from the local media congregate in the Stadium Club of Alex Box Stadium to listen to Paul Mainieri’s preseason state of the program address.
The LSU baseball coach always opens with the same, and last January was no different.
“When we don’t go to Omaha, obviously I’m very disappointed,” said Mainieri back during LSU Baseball Media Day. “You can’t validate your season if you don’t make it to Omaha.
“I know what the standard is [at LSU]. Believe me, it’s my standard too.”
That standard, of course, is to be a frequent attendant at the College World Series.
With that standard comes not just a fear of losing, but a bitter taste of unmitigated disgust. That much was obvious from a noticeably perturbed Mainieri moments after LSU’s 12-10 loss to Kentucky on Sunday, signifying the Tigers’ first series loss of the season.
But having been in and around baseball for all of his life, Mainieri also knows that a couple of extra inning losses over the weekend do not bury his team. It just means that they have more work to do.
“The sky is not falling,” the LSU coach said through a smile on Monday. “We’re two games behind Texas A&M and Vanderbilt (for the overall SEC lead) and there’s 21 (games) left to go, so we’ll have our opportunities.”
Though 23-5 overall and ranked in the top five in all major college baseball polls, LSU’s two losses to the Wildcats have the Tigers amongst a pool of six other SEC teams that are either 5-4 or 4-5 in conference play.
What happened at The Box this past weekend can best be described as peculiar.
Sure, there were a few mistakes made on LSU’s end to which Mainieri admitted to, such as pinch-hitting for Chris Sciambra during Friday’s loss and pinch-running for Chris Chinea on Sunday. But even, so LSU sweeps the series if Alex Bregman doesn’t get hit on Conner Hale’s would-be game winning single on Friday, and then there was Kentucky’s unfathomable inside-the-park home run to tie the game with two outs in the ninth on Sunday.
As lame and unexplanatory of an excuse it may be, you have to file those misgivings under the “that’s baseball” category and move on.
Next up for LSU is an Alabama team that has won just two of its last seven games. With the Crimson Tide’s facilities in Tuscaloosa going through much-needed renovations, the series will take place at the home of SEC Tournament, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium – a park that LSU has had great success in under Mainieri.
A sweep there, and the Tigers are right back on track.
Oversimplified? Probably so, but that just goes back to the inherited expectations that come with the territory at LSU.
Even so, depending on the makeup of a team in any given season, those expectations are sometimes more realistic than others. Just look at the starting nine that Mainieri has gone with over the past few games. Six are returning starters from last year and eight are either juniors or seniors – and there’s a decent chance that every one of those guys are gone after this season.
Couple that with a solid pitching staff led by freshman Alex Lange, the best pitcher in the SEC right now, and you have the perfect mix akin to the teams that Mainieri had in 2009 and 2013. Not so coincidentally, both those teams made deep postseason runs with the former winning it all.
The LSU coach realizes this, too.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be listening for any excuses this year,” Mainieri said of what he believes his team is capable of. “I’ve always try to put my lineup out there with a balance of underclassmen and upperclassmen so that there’s not that huge transition into the following year.
“As I analyze this year’s team, of the best nine guys we got, eight of them are juniors and seniors. I’m not going to worry about next season that much, I want to win now.”
And ultimately that’s why dropping the series to Kentucky seems so huge at the moment. LSU is firmly in ‘win now’ mode and has the personnel to do it. That didn’t work out last weekend, but the feeling around the program is that it was more of an anomaly than the norm.
Standards or not, this team still has everything in front of them.