Ever wonder what it’s like to crawl into the head of a coach during a tense game?
Of course, you have.
What’s he thinking? What’s he feeling? What’s he doing?
We’ll never really know.
We can guess. We can take the coach’s word for it. We can assume.
LSU, the NCAA tournament No. 8 national seed, entered the seventh inning down 4-2 to Southeastern Louisiana in a 1-4 seed matchup Friday to open the Baton Rouge regional.
The Tigers’ season, in essence, hung in the balance. None of the 32 teams that lost the opening game of an NCAA regional last year won a regional.
Take that and add it to this: LSU coach Paul Mainieri made the decision not to start ace Aaron Nola against the Lions, holding him for a more formidable opponent Saturday and starting freshman Jared Poché.
Mainieri threw out a rookie on the mound against what’s arguably the best No. 4 seed in the entire NCAA tournament. A lot of coaches would have done the same. Some wouldn’t have.
But what was Mainieri thinking? Asked that, he gives a loud chuckle, smiles and shakes his head.
“I had made my decision,” he said. “You make your decisions, and you believe they were the right ones.”
It ended up being right. But, oh Nellie, it was close to being wrong.
LSU won 8-4. The Tigers stormed back to score two runs in the seventh to tie it and four runs in the eighth to ice a game amid a raucous crowd at Alex Box Stadium.
They made their coach look genius.
His gamble — it wasn’t all that risky — paid off, and now his team couldn’t be in better position to win the Baton Rouge regional and advance to a third straight super regional.
Nola will start Saturday night. The All-American right-hander from Baton Rouge is 10-1 and has an ERA of 1.49. He’s arguably the best pitcher in the nation, a low-90s hurler who will likely be selected in the top 10 of the MLB draft next week.
LSU has lost just one game this season in which Nola has started. He’s started 15.
“You don’t need much to win with him on the mound,” said right fielder Mark Laird.
No, you don’t.
It doesn’t end there, either. LSU didn’t use, arguably, its top three relievers Friday. Closer Joe Broussard didn’t pitch. Kurt McCune and Parker Bugg didn’t pitch either.
If Nola does what he’s expected to — go about seven-plus innings — LSU’s position heading into Sunday’s regional final couldn’t be better.
It would have a mostly fresh bullpen. Kyle Bouman would likely get the start on the mound against a team playing one more game in a 48-hour period than LSU has.
They’ve pieced together and won critical games against much better teams with Bouman and Alden Cartwright starting. They won at Ole Miss that way. They won at Auburn. Heck, they won the SEC tournament title with that method last weekend.
All of this is possible because of a gamble that paid off.
“I said we were going to have to win the first two games (of the regional),” Mainieri said. “Poché was going to have to win a game. What if I had pitched Nola today and we had won 2-0 and tomorrow night Poché got beat?
“We had to win. I was confident in Poché.”
That’s what Mainieri was thinking.