COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jared Foster stood in front of the visiting dugout at Carolina Stadium, arms folded and with a smile on his face, as LSU fans lined up for autographs behind him.
He had just helped LSU to a Southeastern Conference championship, a ninth SEC series win and an 8-1 thumping of South Carolina on Saturday night.
Two weeks ago, the Tigers second baseman was removed from the team after being ruled academically ineligible.
“It’s great to be back,” he quipped. “Feels great.”
What would feel better?
An SEC tournament title next weekend.
“Can’t let up now,” Foster said.
The nation’s consensus top-ranked team for the past month, LSU (46-9) left Columbia with the program’s 16th SEC title and maybe more. Coach Paul Mainieri’s bunch, many feel, secured the overall NCAA No. 1 national seed with the series victory over the Gamecocks.
That’s not leading to any thoughts of taking a rest in next week’s SEC tournament, though.
“We’re going to go to Hoover, and we’re going to do our best to win there,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know why people would think it doesn’t matter.”
Said shortstop Alex Bregman: “We want to win it.”
The Tigers meet Tuesday’s Auburn-Kentucky winner at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in the double-elimination round of the event at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in the Birmingham suburbs.
LSU has dominated the tournament with Mainieri at the helm. He’s 22-4 at the event, and the Tigers have won five of the past seven SEC tournaments.
Some might say this year’s event could do no harm or no good for a squad that the NCAA committee may have already scribbled on the top line of the bracket as the No. 1 national seed.
“I don’t know about that!” Mainieri fired back at a reporter after Saturday’s game.
Don’t let that fool you. The coach knows his team’s credentials are likely good enough for what would be the first No. 1 national seed in program history. In fact, earlier during that postgame interview, he rattled off the highlights.
“We won all five (SEC) road series, nine of the 10 series in the league, had single-digit losses in a regular season,” Mainieri said.
LSU has been a top-eight national seed five times in Mainieri’s previous eight years, including the past three. The school has grabbed seven national seeds since the NCAA began this format in 1999.
But the Tigers have never been the No. 1 overall seed in the rich history of the program. So what comes with being No. 1? LSU’s path to the College World Series would, presumably, be the easiest of any team in the nation with respect to the opponents along the way. Like any top-16 seed, they’d host a four-team regional and, like any top-eight seed, they’d host a best-of-three super regional if they advance.
The NCAA reveals its national seeds and full field Monday, May 25 — the day after the SEC tournament championship game. LSU hopes it will be playing in that game — No. 1 national seed locked up or not.
“It’s always fun to win,” Mainieri said. “You have incremental goals along the way. You don’t want to go two and out. Once you win one, you want to at least win as many as you lose and then once you get to Saturday, you want to get to Sunday to play in the championship game and, heck, if you play on Sunday, you might as well try to win, right? That’s kind of our approach to it.”
Mainieri doesn’t plan to rest his starting pitchers. Jared Poché will start Game 1 on Wednesday, and freshman Austin Bain will get the Game 2 nod Thursday while Alex Lange throws in LSU’s possible third game Friday — or Saturday if the Tigers win the first two games.
Mainieri threw Lange for five innings Saturday night against South Carolina despite LSU clinching the SEC regular-season title before the game began.
“People say, ‘You already had it wrapped up,’ ” Mainieri said Saturday. “I’ve said so many times that every time you put that jersey on, you have a responsibility to go out and do the very best that you can and play to win for your university as well as to respect the game.”
Players don’t want any rest, especially Foster. He’s taking advantage of every game, savoring every win, since being reunited with the team five days ago.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “That’s one of the things I told the team when I came back. Being away from the team was terrible. It killed me.”
And of the SEC tournament? Well, he doesn’t want to lose.
“We’re having too much fun to go out there and lay an egg and say, ‘Oh, we’re this or that,’ ” Foster said before pausing. “Let’s win it three times in a row.”
Race for the No. 1 national seed
Three teams seem to have separated themselves in the fight for the No. 1 overall seed:
UCLA: The 2013 national champs won the Pac-12 regular season and have an RPI of 3. They’ve claimed all 10 of their conference series and won a nonconference three-game set over RPI 21 North Carolina.
Louisville: The ACC regular-season champions, the Cardinals, RPI No. 10, finished with a whopping 25 conference wins out of 30 games. They have three three-game sweeps over RPI top-31 ACC teams.
LSU: The Tigers won the SEC regular-season championship, lost just one league series all season and have an RPI of 5. They’ve been atop all six of the major polls for four weeks.
LSU’s national seeds
The Tigers have garnered five top-eight NCAA national seeds under coach Paul Mainieri and seven overall since the NCAA went to this format in 1999:
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.