It’s a campaign year, and Paul Mainieri is taking his cause on the road in an effort to impress the voters.
His LSU Tigers have wowed the home folks, but Mainieri is after a different audience now: the 10 people who sit on the NCAA baseball selection committee.
With a 39-17 record and fresh off a series victory over then-No. 1 Florida, LSU has shot up to a consensus top-10 ranking when you look at the four major college baseball polls and the ever-important NCAA RPI.
If you average the polls (which, of course, have no bearing on NCAA seedings) and the RPI, LSU comes in at 8.2. Normally, that would be great. If LSU were in the Big 12 or the Pac-12, the Tigers would have an inside track at a top-eight NCAA national seed for sure.
But a pack-racing mentality pervades the SEC tournament, fittingly being played at least one more year in Hoover, Alabama, just a few tape measure home runs from restrictor-plate heaven in Talladega. In all, seven SEC teams — seven — rank in the top 10 in the four polls and/or the RPI.
Here’s how the poll and RPI ranking averages shake out:
-- Texas A&M: 2.6
-- Mississippi State: 3.6
-- Florida: 4.2
-- South Carolina: 6.8
-- LSU: 8.2
-- Vanderbilt: 9.8
-- Ole Miss: 10.6
By that rough, subjective and highly unofficial estimate, LSU should be a virtual lock to host a regional next week. Although it’s not supposed to matter, psychologically it has to carry weight with the selection committee that the Tigers finished strong. They started 2-5 in SEC play and finished 17-6.
John Cohen of SEC champ Mississippi State may have copped coach of the year honors, but Mainieri and his staff have their admirers, too.
“One of his better jobs in coaching, in my mind,” said Tennessee coach Dave Serrano, whose Volunteers take on LSU at 8 p.m. Tuesday (yeah, right) in the SEC tourney’s win-or-go-home first round. “They have such a new team. (Alex) Lange didn’t have the kind of year they anticipated from day one. (Jared) Poché hasn’t had his best season. To win as many games as they have with how many new guys they have on the field is a tremendous job and credit to Paul and his coaching staff. We know they’re one of the hotter teams in the country. We know we got the rally possum against us, so we’ve got our hands full.”
Mainieri puts that appreciation to the test Tuesday, doing some serious dice-rolling by starting oft-injured but super-talented freshman lefty Jake Latz. He decided, surprisingly, to hold his ace Lange in reserve until at least Wednesday, should the Tigers survive a Vols team they swept but just beat 2-1 in the series opener in Knoxville two weeks ago with Lange on the mound.
He’s playing a hunch, but Mainieri has been riding a hot hand of late to be sure.
“I think we’ve put ourselves in position to host a regional,” Mainieri said. “But we’ve got some work to do in Hoover.”
For a national seed, the Tigers will probably have to win, or at least make it to Sunday’s final. It’s a long road, but who would have thought LSU could even get in this position — or that Truman could defeat Dewey?
Chandler Rome contributed to this column.