By James Bewers
With empty seats around him, LSU designated hitter Chris Sciambra walked back out under the lights at TD Ameritrade Park.
His final game as a Tiger had ended, and he was virtually the only one left on the field. He stood behind home plate and eventually sat down atop the matting that lines the backstop. For a few minutes, he soaked in the aura that is the baseball stadium in Omaha, Nebraska. As a graduated senior who went undrafted, the 8-4 elimination loss to TCU in the College World Series may have been the final time he will play baseball at a high level.
Reality may not have fully set in at point, but Sciambra, a player who was instrumental in LSU’s return to Omaha, tried to embrace it.
Regardless of how their season ended, Sciambra and the Tigers had made it to the pinnacle of college baseball. But success for this baseball program is only measured by championships, specifically national championships, so it is must be difficult to understand the feeling of not achieving the coveted prize.
“The tough thing about this business is you work so hard all year—really for the years leading up to this year,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “You have hopes and aspirations, and then the finality of it is so quick and so cruel, really. You expect to be playing for the championship. Your teams wins 54 games during the season, and you win championships along the way. But the one you really want to win is so difficult.”
The 54 wins this season weren’t a program record nor a best for Mainieri. But just one series loss all year and a No. 1 ranking for most of the season gave many the feeling this team was destined for its first championship in six years.
Left-handed reliever Zac Person said winning in the College World Series takes more than fans truly understand.
“I don’t think people get it,” Person said. “Just making it here is tough. The top eight out of all the teams in the NCAA—that’s a small percentage. Just making to this point is extremely difficult…you don’t make it here without being quality. In order to win here, you have to be very talented and very lucky at the same time. If you don’t get your breaks, you will get knocked off.”
LSU entered the season with the No. 1 recruiting class and an experienced lineup to match, but even before they played a game, breaks didn’t fall in the Tigers favor. First, top pitching recruiting Mac Marshall left the program to play at a junior college next season. Then, freshman lefty Jake Latz, another highly touted pitching prospect, injured his elbow, which continued to linger and kept him out for the entire season. With sophomore lefty Jared Poche’ being the only regular starting pitcher with experience, the Tigers’ task of replacing first round draft pick Aaron Nola became that much more difficult.
Although national freshman pitcher of the year Alex Lange proved to be no fluke and the team held the lowest ERA in the SEC, LSU never firmly established a No. 3 starting pitcher, which turned out to be its fatal flaw.
“We had some bad breaks this year, where we lost out on a couple of kids that we thought were going to help us a lot and kind of just made us a little more thin that we need to be, Mainieri said. “But the kids that went out there and pitched, I think [pitching coach] Alan Dunn did just magnificent work with all of them. They made themselves competitive. The margin for error is just so small when you don’t have a mid-90s fastball or the knockout breaking ball.”
But LSU’s strength could be found in its experienced lineup, which was made up of seven future draft picks. The experience didn’t go to waste as the club held top-ten national ranking in batting average, runs and stolen bases. But the Tiger bats mysteriously vanished at the conclusion of the SEC Tournament and throughout most of the NCAA Tournament—something the pitching staff couldn’t make up for in Omaha.
At the pace it was on for most of the season, a talented lineup like this one seemed immune to a drop off, but as Mainieri will lament, baseball can humble any player or team.
The Tigers’ season ended ungracefully and unsatisfying, but leaders like junior shortstop Alex Bregman want fans to remember the passion the departing players brought to the program, remaining adamant the players returning have unfinished business.
“We left it all out there every time we took the field,” Bregman said. “We love playing for coach Mainieri and the other coaches. The road to Omaha starts with the guys that are in the that locker room that are coming back next year. It starts now.”