OMAHA, Neb. — Way back on April 29, when LSU beat Alabama 4-3 in 11 innings, Paul Mainieri said he breathed a sigh of relief knowing his Tigers had made it to 30 wins against 15 losses.
“At least I knew we were going to have a winning season,” he said at one of his team’s practices last week.
It was, of course, a practice during the College World Series, the home of LSU baseball’s annual Holy Grail.
Monday night, the final leg of the Tigers' quest for the big prize begins when they take on Southeastern Conference rival Florida in the College World Series finals.
It's Florida vs. LSU in Game 1 of the College World Series finals...
LSU is aiming for its seventh national title and second under Mainieri, who led the Tigers to the big trophy in 2009.
Like any worthwhile quest, it won’t be easy. LSU got this far despite the critical loss of one of its best starting pitchers, freshman Eric Walker, to an arm injury a week ago. Mainieri shut Walker down and is now forced to gamble on holding his best two starters, Jared Poché and Alex Lange, until Game 2 and Game 3 of the best-of-three finals.
He’s going with senior Russell Reynolds as his starter, a seldom-used reliever who has averaged roughly one inning in his 14 appearances this season.
Plenty of critics will say Mainieri has lost his head — especially as Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan taps one of his shiny starters, sophomore Brady Singer, to go Monday night. Singer is among an assembly line of Florida pitchers who have been or likely will be first-round draft picks. This could be Reynolds’ last start of any kind.
Second-guessing Mainieri has become a shadow pastime when it comes to LSU baseball, sort of like downing a drink every time a TV camera shows Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey (shortstop Kramer Robertson’s mom) at a game. Oddly, in the midst of what you'd have to say is at least one of his two most productive seasons, Mainieri has been second-guessed the most.
Everyone else in the world seems to have an opinion, so what do you think about Kramer’s hair?
He takes his pitchers out too soon. He leaves them in too long. He tinkers with the lineup. He is too aggressive on the bases.
What they never say is that Mainieri wins too much.
And he wins. A lot. He has 1,376 wins in 34 seasons. This is his sixth CWS team and sixth 50-win team between his years at LSU and Notre Dame, a challenging school to win at academically and meteorologically.
Nonetheless, Mainieri won 40 or more games there 11 of his 12 seasons, and within two years of arriving at LSU in 2007, he resuscitated the Tigers’ flagging fortunes and had them back here to Omaha.
Sixteen of his former players and assistants have become head coaches at some point — including Andy Cannizaro, whose Mississippi State team lost to LSU in the Baton Rouge super regional. Another, Virginia’s Brian O’Connor, led Virginia to the CWS title in 2015.
None of those guys is here now, though. It’s just Mainieri, the old Roman, leading the Tigers to the cusp of another championship.
He can be unflinchingly honest. After reporters asked freshman third baseman Josh Smith on Friday about the home run he belted in the seventh inning against Oregon State — an enormous insurance run in the Tigers’ 3-1 victory — Mainieri quietly said: “They didn’t ask you about your bunt.”
It was a reference to the botched bunt that Smith popped out to the catcher in the ninth when he was trying to move Zach Watson over.
It may seem harsh, but it’s Mainieri’s obsessive attention to detail that makes him successful. It’s not dissimilar to the unvarnished approach Skip Bertman had with his players, and the attention to detail that in his early days had Bertman checking the restrooms at old Alex Box Stadium to make sure everything was in order.
Mainieri isn’t perfect. He doesn’t always pick the right times to change pitchers, and his teams do run into a lot of outs trying to take the extra base. But his biggest problem is that he isn’t Bertman, who lifted LSU baseball from obscurity to five national titles in an incredible 10-year run from 1991-2000, turning the whole program into a money-making venture in the process.
If you want to say Mainieri isn’t Bertman, that’s fair. No one else is, either. Someone has to be the best of all time, and when it comes to college baseball, Bertman might be it.
But Skip isn’t coming back to coach the team. And neither LSU nor anyone else is winning five national titles in 10 years again.
The flip side to Bertman’s legacy that’s so often ignored is that he showed athletic directors across the country that baseball didn’t have to be a drain on their budgets, but an asset. Today, nearly every SEC program has a ballpark that’s been built or rebuilt in the past 10 years, or has a facility that’s about to get an upgrade.
Florida, interestingly enough, is preparing to upgrade its McKethan Stadium, which has fallen behind the times compared to other college baseball powers.
Mainieri’s Tigers shared the SEC regular-season title with Florida. LSU won the SEC tournament, the sixth time in his decade that the Tigers have done that. Counting all the SEC regular-season, SEC Western Division, SEC tournament, NCAA regional, super regional and CWS titles, LSU has captured 28 crowns under Mainieri's watch.
OMAHA, Neb. — A day before their teams were to meet for the first game of the College World …
A 29th title, a second CWS title, would put Mainieri in some elite company. Only 15 college baseball coaches have won two or more national championships.
The company you keep says a lot about who you are.