Dig Baton Rouge

The Sports Troll: Back home in Omaha

If someone would have told me in mid-April that LSU would be one of the favorites to win the College World Series, I’d have likely placed the palm of my hand on his/her forehead to make sure he/she wasn’t running a fever.

If someone would have told me after LSU lost to South Alabama that the Tigers would win-out for the rest of the regular season, the SEC Tournament, the Regional and the Super Regional, I’d have probably smiled, called the person a homer, then walked away.

So much for me and my stupid, smart-Alec opinions.

As everyone now knows, yes, the Tigers ARE in the College World Series in 2017 – a miraculous rags to riches run for a team which had serious problems in the middle of the season and which had its own fan base on pins and needles throughout a lot of the year.

Sure, everyone today is a slave to the moment and remembers all of the good times.

That’s easy. We always remember what’s freshest in our minds.
But I’m a history nerd, so I like to look at the past, and that shows me a remarkably weird season.

This LSU team is good.

They can hit. They can pitch and they have gobs and gobs of speed.

Their success in the past few weeks is expected. The Tigers were picked by many as one of the top teams in the country. After losing just a few guys to the draft and returning a huge core of juniors, everyone expected this team to be in this position.

So how in the hell were the Tigers ever playing so poorly in the first place?

Folks, this LSU team had some really down moments in 2017. The Tigers really struggled to find their way.

This is the same LSU team which lost twice to both UNO and Tulane. It’s also the same team which lost to McNeese and South Alabama, as well.

Simply stating that the Tigers flipped a switch after Kramer Robertson’s little newspaper statement is low-hanging fruit.
It’s more than that.

The Tigers got better and turned their season around when they started to realize how good Zach Watson is, giving him every-day work in the lineup.

The team also got better when Zack Hess moved out of his mid-week starter role and into the pressure cooker as the team’s primary setup man.

Last, but not least, the Tigers got rolling when catcher Michael Papierski got rolling and turned into one of the toughest outs in America with runners in scoring position.
And credit for all three of those things goes, in part, to coach Paul Mainieri.

Look, I was hard on Mainieri in this column – brutally tough.
I think local media are soft on LSU coaches because they’re all closet LSU fans. I like to be fair and objective and I thought Mainieri did a pretty bad coaching job in the first half of this baseball season.

But he’s done a masterful job in the back-half of it, and a spade is a spade, so it’s time we shout the skipper out for a job well done.

I didn’t think the team would be at this point, but I was wrong.

Now, I think LSU will go to Omaha and win the National Championship.

I hope I’m not wrong on that one.

Before we depart for the day, I also want to chime in a little on the College World Series as a whole.

This year’s field is golden from top to bottom for college baseball fans – an eight-team field loaded with both talented clubs but also with name-brand programs.

I will break down LSU’s matchup with Florida State later in the week, but I want to list all eight teams, while giving one reason why each can win or lose in Omaha.

Can win if … they keep hitting. LSU is the best team in the country when they hit at the clip they are now.

Can lose if … Jared Poche’ doesn’t pitch well. It’s one thing to beat Mississippi State and Texas Southern on bad outings. The same won’t be available in Omaha.

Can win if … this becomes a marathon and not a sprint. The Gators have the deepest pitching staff in America by a mile.

Can lose if … they allow early runs. This isn’t a team that can come from behind and win games.

Can win if… the bottom of the order produces. The top of the Cardinals’ lineup is ferocious, but there are a lot of shaky batting averages below those guys.

Can lose if… the ballpark is playing big. The Cardinals hit a bunch of home runs, but Omaha has a huge park. If it’s not carrying, their biggest offensive weapon is gone.

Can win if… the game is played at their speed. This is not a team that will get you 10 runs and 17 hits. They’re a small-ball club that thrives in 3-2 and 4-1 games.

Can lose if… their pitching doesn’t do its part. To be a successful small-ball club, you need dominant pitching. The Titans have it on paper. But they’ve never faced offenses like this, either.

Can win if… they ride the wave. Outside of LSU, the Seminoles are arguably the hottest team entering the field.

Can lose if… Tyler Holton isn’t magnificent. He’s by far the best pitcher the Seminoles have as a starter. They need a huge tournament from him to have any chance at all.

Can win if… the moment isn’t too big. The Beavers need very little to change in Omaha, compared to the season. They need to make these games seem as normal as humanly possible. That’s always best for the No. 1 seed.

Can lose if… the bulls-eye gets too big. It’s not easy to be the No. 1 seed in an eight-team tournament. The Beavers will not have the luxury to play anything besides an A+ game if they want to have a chance. That’s a lot of pressure.

Can win if… their offense protects Evan Skoug. The powerful slugger has 20 of TCU’s 57 home runs this season. They need a few others to step up, though, or he will be walking on down to first base often.

Can lose if… contact isn’t consistent. The Horned Frogs strike out a ton. They’ve gone down 502 times this season via the strikeout. By comparison, LSU has struck out just 380 times. Oregon State has just 343 strikeouts, as well.

Can win if… they can keep it close. The Aggies are an undefeated 5-0 so far in the NCAA Tournament and three of those five wins came by just one run. They know how to win the close ones.

Can lose if… pitching becomes a problem. The Aggies let up 12 runs against Davidson in two games, which is a tad much. In the SEC Tournament, their staff got kicked around a little bit, too.


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