HOOVER, Ala. — Since the minute it clinched the Southeastern Conference championship, 45 minutes before Saturday’s regular-season finale at South Carolina, the question has hung out there like a chest-high fastball:
Should LSU care about winning the SEC tournament?
On the face of it, it’s a ridiculous question.
Should you want to win a championship? Aren’t championships what everyone works toward all season? Aren’t they what all the hitting, fielding and pitching drills are for, the simulated games and the weightlifting and the film study, the playing through rain and pain, the brush burns from sliding into second and the bruised shins from fouling one off your pin at the plate?
The answer is an obvious yes. But for LSU, this year’s trip to Hoover comes with a caveat.
Last year, the Tigers needed to win the SEC tournament to impress the selection committee enough to award them the eighth and last national seed in the NCAA tournament.
This year, LSU faces no such ultimatum. With a 46-9 record and the SEC championship trophy on Paul Mainieri’s mantle piece (actually, the Tigers will be handed the trophy before the start of Wednesday’s game against Auburn), a top-eight seed is a virtual certainty. LSU could go 0-2 here, then go home and play pepper until the NCAA bids come out Monday and probably not drop below No. 3.
That’s not going to happen. A laissez-faire attitude may be pervasive in our fair state, but it’s not part of this program’s DNA. Making a run to the SEC tourney title has become a de facto part of LSU’s season in recent years. The Tigers have won five of the past seven titles contested here, as close to a “death and taxes” kind of proposition you can find amid the wild unpredictability of sports.
Championships of any kind are too precious to be taken for granted. And past success in the SEC tournament is no guarantee the Tigers will win it in the future — especially in a future next season when LSU’s starting lineup figures to be gutted by the draft and graduation.
When it comes to winning, greed is indeed good. Hog all the hardware you can while you can. Nonetheless, LSU should pursue this title with a purpose.
There are tournaments and there are tournaments, and LSU has no need to sacrifice its best shot at advancing in the NCAA tournament for a chance to win another SEC postseason crown.
Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn get criticized at times for how they use their pitchers, but they seem to be properly focused in how to work their staff with a certain NCAA home regional just over the pitcher’s mound. No reason to recklessly burn up arms in Hoover and wreck your rotation next week at The Box.
Jared Poché is going to pitch Wednesday, Austin Bain (the No. 3 starter) will throw Thursday and, if LSU advances, freshman Alex Lange is going to throw Friday or Saturday. It’s a plan designed to give LSU’s starters the proper rest with an eye to NCAA play next week.
And all of those guys will be fitted with a pitch counter that will shoot a flare out the top of their caps when they hit the predetermined limit (90 or so; certainly no more than 100). Well, not really, but someone in the LSU dugout will have the very important job this week of keeping painstaking track of how many pitches each Tigers hurler throws.
“We’re not going to extend these three guys beyond something reasonable,” Mainieri said Monday. “I don’t know if you’re going to see them hit triple digits in pitches. It’ll be close, but certainly not much more than that.
“Remember, we’re playing Wednesday, Thursday and Friday or Saturday,” Mainieri continued, confidence with an asterisk. “The (NCAA) tournament next weekend doesn’t start until Friday. There’s going to be extra rest.”
There is bonus incentive for LSU, to be sure. In their proud history, the Tigers have never been the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. An SEC tournament title, or at least a run to the weekend, likely would secure that for LSU, though that is a dubious distinction. Since the NCAA tournament went to the super regional format in 1999, only Miami in 1999 won as the No. 1 national seed.
Even in a superstition-filled game like baseball, that shouldn’t deter the Tigers for an instant.
The Tigers may not triumph here this year, but it certainly doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Not for broke, but certainly boldly.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.