It’s D-Day, in more ways than one.
It’s the LSU Fighting Tigers and the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in the NCAA tournament’s Baton Rouge super regional.
It’s meaningful. It’s personal. It’s may be borderline delusional, given the passion that runs like hot sauce over both of these simmering rivals.
But this weekend is about everything that makes college athletics so appealing, so compelling, so riddled with delicious obsessions. Two huge in-state rivals, thrown together in the pressure cooker of early, steamy June with enormous stakes in the balance.
The other seven super regionals around the country are merely about two teams slugging it out in a best-of-three contest for the trip of a lifetime to the College World Series. Yeah, yeah, Florida and Florida State and TCU and Texas A&M aren’t too fond of each other, either. That’s a given.
But no schools playing this weekend sit in closer proximity to each other. Only 59.4 miles separate UL-Lafayette’s M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field and LSU’s Alex Box Stadium. That’s just over an hour’s drive down I-10 without traffic.
(Hahahaha. Without traffic.)
They’re close, so close they could lob andouille sausage at each other over the Atchafalaya basin. And before it’s over, they just might.
This isn’t only about who ends up having the most memorable baseball season in Louisiana this year, who wins what is the biggest baseball series in this state since Tulane beat LSU in the 2001 super regional — and maybe bigger than that.
For Tigers fans and Cajuns devotees, this is a referendum on schools, on a way of life, on who you are in your very soul, what you love — and whom you hate. It’s who has the tastiest tailgate, the most tricked-out RVs, the prettiest girlfriends, the winning colors.
To Tigers fans, UL-Lafayette is the annoying little brother, always trying to pick a fight. To Cajuns fans, LSU is the evil empire, and Tiger Stadium looms beyond the center field fence at Alex Box Stadium like the Death Star. There’s a guy on Twitter who follows me whose home page has a picture of a T-shirt that reads, “Friends don’t let friends wear purple or gold.” That sort of thing.
To say there is no love lost between these two factions in this case implies that there was love at some point. You have to have something in the first place to lose it.
On a macroeconomic level, there is no contest. UL-Lafayette’s athletic budget is just under $20 million. LSU picked up a check for just over 50 percent more than that ($31.2 million, plus bowl revenue) at last week’s Southeastern Conference Spring Meeting.
But this is baseball, a sport where bigger doesn’t always mean winner. A sport where even a Greek god in cleats will fail more often that he succeeds.
And this is a short series, a format in which anything can happen and often does.
LSU has numerical superiority. The Tigers hit better (.319 to .273), pitch better (a 2.84 team ERA to 3.33) and field better (.977 to .970). The Tigers have more pro baseball prospects and play their games in a ballpark where this time of year (most) other team’s dreams go to melt.
With apologies to Rocky Balboa, no other sport gives more hope to the underdog than baseball. A team that hits screaming line drives all over the yard can find all of them wrapped in leather gloves. A pitching staff that brings serious heat can find its pitches going the opposite direction just as fast as they were delivered.
LSU has the pedigree, the history, the talent, the intimidator, glaring down from behind the right-field bleachers touting the program’s six national titles — which also imposes high demands on the current residents.
UL-Lafayette has the hot confidence of a team that wouldn’t have made it this far if it first hadn’t battled out of the losers’ bracket to win the Sun Belt tournament, then forged a pair of improbable ninth-inning comebacks en route to the Houston regional title.
Last year was supposed to be the Cajuns’ year. They were a national seed (as was LSU) and hosting a super regional against Ole Miss, winners of an NCAA-best 58 games even though they came up one game shy of Omaha.
We sports followers love to predict. This predicts to be an LSU victory, with a team quite similar in accomplishment to UL-Lafayette last year, a team that could well go on to the seventh heaven of another CWS title.
But what if the Cajuns’ time is now?
Who will fortune favor this weekend? It’s time to find out.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.