The road to 20 wins in Southeastern Conference baseball play starts with the first one, and it starts there every week.
The goal for Paul Mainieri’s LSU team this weekend, playing on the road against a talented Florida club is the same as it is for every three-game series: Avoid getting swept.
“Your goal to start with is to not get swept in the weekend series; that means you’ve got to win one game,” Mainieri said. “Once you win that one game, if it’s before the final day, now you’re saying, 'If we can win a second game, we can win the series.' Now, if you’re lucky enough to have won the first two games, on Sunday now you can say, 'We have an opportunity to sweep the series; let’s take advantage of it.' ”
It’s a simple way for Mainieri to break a far-away goal down into a more manageable chunk. Win one game, then build on it.
Start small, and reap big rewards at the end. That’s the plan.
Focus on the big rewards at the end and lose sight of that single win? That’s where trouble comes in.
“If you go into the series saying, ‘We’re going to try to sweep it, or we’re going to try to win the series,’ hey, you haven’t gotten anything in the bank yet,” Mainieri said. “You’ve got to earn everything you get in this league.”
It’s not just cliché; it’s the way you’ve got to think. It’s not only a mentality; it also is strategy. You’ve got to go for it today.
Mainieri knows the significance of the No. 20 when it comes to SEC baseball. Twenty wins, more often than not, results in a high chance of a league title, and that carries more than just bragging rights.
The SEC’s regular-season champion has earned a national seed in the NCAA tournament in every year of Mainieri’s tenure, and the 14 of the league’s 20 divisional champions have earned the same distinction in the same time span.
Only once in that time frame has the SEC been won with fewer than 20 wins. Combine all the division champions in the last 10 seasons and they average 20.2 wins in league play.
Why does 20 seem to be the benchmark? One obvious reason is that it means teams are winning two thirds of their games, or are averaging a series win every weekend.
“I think any coach will tell you — you don’t want to tell your players this — but if you win every series, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good about yourself, because the teams are so good in this league,” said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who has coached three 20-win Gators teams that have gone on to earn national seeds.
O’Sullivan largely agrees with Mainieri when it comes to keeping goals manageable in pursuit of that far-away number. But he also will permit himself a peek at the long view when the situation requires it.
“What I’ve always thought was, if you lose the first two of a weekend, you have to somehow salvage one,” O’Sullivan said. “If you win the first two of a weekend and you have a chance to sweep, you’ve got to play your best game on Sunday.”
The issue, O’Sullivan said, is with acceptance. Either acceptance that it’s not your team’s weekend when going into the series finale in an 0-2 hole, or the satisfaction that comes with winning the first two games of a series.
In a league where 20 wins in 30 tries is the standard for champions, acceptance could play the deciding factor in whether your team plays its postseason games at home or on the road.
“We were swept last week at Auburn, and you kind of dig yourself a little bit of a hole,” O’Sullivan said. “But the whole idea is to salvage a weekend when you play somebody who plays better than you.
“And when you catch someone on a weekend where they don’t play as well and you’ve got a chance to sweep, I think you’ve got to really push hard to get that third win to make up for a tough weekend on the road or something like that.”
But that’s still playing the game in a specific moment, looking for that one win that will undoubtedly come in handy later.
What coaches like Mainieri and O’Sullivan won’t do is try to game the system, because there’s no way to get a cheap 20 wins in league play.
Mainieri thought back to when he coached at Notre Dame. He took his Irish down to play a series against a Miami team whose lineup was peppered with future big-leaguers. He thought he’d get creative by throwing his ace on Sunday to try to steal a win.
“Hey, we got killed so bad the first two games that by the time we got to Sunday it was just a matter of survival,” Mainieri said. “I was down to three pitchers available and it didn’t work.
“From that point on, I said to myself that I’m never going to play games like that again. I’m going to match it up with our best guy against their best guy. Let’s go let it rip. Let’s challenge whoever we’re playing and see if we can win that game. Once that game’s over, let’s turn our attention to the second one.”
A DECADE OF 20+
Only once in the last decade has a team won the SEC with fewer than 20 wins. Here are the SEC records for each division champion in the last 10 years. Teams with asterisks next to their record went on to earn a national seed in the NCAA tournament.
2016: South Carolina, 20-9, Mississippi State 21-9*
2015: Vanderbilt, 20-10, LSU 21-8*
2014: Florida, 21-8*, Ole Miss, 19-10
2013: Vanderbilt, 26-3*, LSU 23-7*
2012: South Carolina, 18-11, LSU 19-11*
2011: South Carolina, 22-8*#, Arkansas 15-15
2010: Florida, 22-8*, Auburn 20-10
2009: Florida, 19-11*, LSU 20-10*
2008: Georgia, 20-9*, LSU 20-10*
2007: Vanderbilt 22-8*, Arkansas 18-12*
# Note: Florida and Vanderbilt also went 22-8 in SEC play in 2011, and also earned national seeds.
East champion average: 21-8.5
West champion average: 19.4-10.3
Cumulative average: 20.2-9.4