HOOVER, Ala. — Nolan Cain marveled at what he saw when the LSU Tigers traveled to Notre Dame for a two-game series earlier this month.
Not at the football stadium Knute Rockne built or Touchdown Jesus or the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was the sight of Notre Dame’s hard turf field, the chilly and rainy weather even in May, and the parking lot next to the ballpark where Paul Mainieri used to make his Irish players practice catching fly balls in their tennis shoes during the icy early months of the year when they couldn’t get on the field.
Mainieri coached at Notre Dame for 12 years, took the Irish to the 2002 College World Series and averaged 44 wins per season. Even now, seeing South Bend first-hand, it’s hard for Cain to fathom.
“All the disadvantages against you,” he said, “and to be able to spin that and get 40 wins a year is just amazing.”
There was a good reason for Mainieri’s ability to win at Notre Dame: He’s a really good coach. One of the best ever.
The book isn’t written on this season yet, but this may be Mainieri’s best coaching job ever.
At any school, under any circumstances.
If you’re a devoted LSU baseball fan, you can quote the numbers by rote: The Tigers lost eight of nine position starters from last year’s team that went 54-12, won the Southeastern Conference and reached the College World Series. The greenness of this LSU team shined through the purple and gold.
At the end of April, this young LSU squad was still trying to find its way, scuffling along at 11-10 in the SEC.
But in May, an ignition switch was flipped. The Tigers are 14-1 this month, including three wins here in the SEC tournament, where LSU finds itself in the familiar position of playing in Saturday’s semifinals. The Tigers take on Florida, which they beat two of three times to end the regular season in Baton Rouge and outlasted 5-3 in 14 innings Wednesday night/Thursday morning in the longest game by time in SEC tourney history.
Sure, it has taken a little good fortune, a little cunning for the Tigers to get to this point. Snaking out of a no-outs, bases-loaded jam against the Gators with five infielders and two outfielders took both guts and divine intervention.
But fortune favors the bold. That’s a big reason LSU is here, going from just hoping to get in the NCAA tournament a month ago to No. 6 in the NCAA RPI on Friday morning and, at this moment, being widely predicted to be a top-eight NCAA tournament seed Monday when the field of 64 is revealed.
To hear Mainieri explain it, it’s a young team finally growing up.
“You think back to our media day in January to now,” Mainieri said Friday as his team went through a light workout at UAB’s ballpark. “I said we have talent on this team but that it would take time. We’re a better team at the end of May than we were in the middle of April. There’s an evolution process you can’t speed up. It’s experience they have to gain.”
Cain agreed but credited Mainieri’s touch for the Tigers’ success as well.
“He knows when to push and pull his team,” said Cain, who pitched the last three seasons of his LSU career under Mainieri from 2007-09. “We may even win a game, and he’ll be tough on those guys: ‘Hey, we got the win, but we didn’t do this or that well.’ When you get toward this time of year, he knows the right buttons to push mentally with these kids.”
This is Mainieri’s time of year. In 20 conference tournaments — eight at LSU and 12 at Notre Dame — Mainieri’s teams have won 10 titles and finished second three times. His record in those tournaments: 58-22.
Since 2002, Mainieri is an almost-impossible 43-8, including 27-5 at LSU with five titles. Although the Tigers were three outs from elimination against Tennessee back on Tuesday night, none of Mainieri’s teams has ever gone winless in a conference tournament. And this is one tough conference tournament.
The SEC tourney is arguably a more challenging field than the CWS. Six SEC teams are ranked Nos. 3-8 in Friday’s RPI — Florida, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU, Vanderbilt and South Carolina — with SEC regular-season champ Mississippi State at No. 10. If half the teams in Omaha aren’t from the SEC, it will be an upset.
And here are Mainieri’s Tigers, in the midst of it again. Young, yes, but growing in confidence each day.
Of course, the guy at the top isn’t young. He’s 58 and has been a head coach for 34 years.
And he has learned a thing or two.
“You hope, as you get older, you get smarter and more patient,” Mainieri said. “There are days this year where I don’t think I was a very good coach. That I wasn’t patient enough. That I wasn’t positive enough. There were other days when I wasn’t challenging the kids enough, that I was too easy on them. But you keep learning.
“You can’t fool yourself. You know if you did right. If you did right and it didn’t work, you can be proud of yourself, and eventually the positives will happen.”
Here’s a positive for you: Mainieri is positively at his best this season.
Tough to beat
Paul Mainieri in conference tournaments:
Year Conference Record Finish
1995 MCC 3-2 Second
1996 Big East 4-2 Second
1997 Big East 2-2 Third
1998 Big East 3-2 Second
1999 Big East 1-2 Fifth
2000 Big East 1-2 Fourth
2001 Big East 1-2 Third
2002 Big East 3-1 First
2003 Big East 3-1 First
2004 Big East 3-0 First
2005 Big East 3-0 First
2006 Big East 4-1 First
2008 SEC 4-0 First
2009 SEC 5-1 First
2010 SEC 4-0 First
2012 SEC 1-2 Fifth
2013 SEC 4-1 First
2014 SEC 4-0 First
2015 SEC 2-1 Third
2016 SEC 3-0 Sat. vs. Florida
3 runner-up finishes
31-17 at Notre Dame
27-5 at LSU