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LSU head coach Paul Mainieri on the field during practice, Sunday, June 25, 2017, ahead of the College World Series finals between LSU and Florida, Saturday, June 24, 2017, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Ne.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

LSU is not far enough removed from its loss in the College World Series finals for coach Paul Mainieri to feel at ease with the way the season ended.

Perhaps that day will never come. 

In some respects, Mainieri said he felt his team was better than Florida, while in others he acknowledged the Gators were superior — pitching depth being one area. 

He looks back on the season and sees 52 wins, remarking that it was the same number the Gators wound up with. The number of wins and losses, the record in the Southeastern Conference, the record against RPI top-50 teams — LSU and Florida finished with almost the exact same marks in each of those categories. 

But LSU did not match Florida head-to-head. The Gators took four of five, but it's the last two that Mainieri will keep with him. 

Those final two games, for many, will define the past 4½ months of LSU baseball. Mainieri sat down with The Advocate to define those games in his own terms, plus the other 72 games the Tigers played this season. 

Looking back at this year, how would you sum it up? It’s where you wanted and figured you’d be ...

When you go from A to Z in a season, there are going to be peaks and valleys. There is going to be the ebb and flow; it’s natural in a college baseball season. It’s very difficult to have single-digit losses in a season. We did that once in the regular season, in 2013. Obviously Oregon State did it this year.

You know you’re going to lose games in baseball; it’s just the nature of the sport — you run into a hot pitcher, the ball doesn’t bounce your way — whatever the reason, but you’re going to have some losses. So when the season is over and you look at the tally, and you see 52 wins and 20 losses and playing in the finals of the College World Series and having five championships you can be proud of, I think you have to say the season was a smashing success. I know that here we judge seasons by, "It’s a really good season if you get to Omaha, and it’s a great season if you win a national championship." We came two wins short of winning a national championship, so I think you say the season was a really good season. We made it to Omaha, we won a bunch of championships, there was a lot to be proud of.

... I remember when we won our 30th game of the year, saying to my wife, "God, I never thought it would be so hard to get to 30 wins in a season." It was hard, that stretch. Then, all of a sudden, you look up and you have 52 wins on a season when you thought getting to 30 was difficult. Some spectacular things happened toward the end, and I was really proud of that.

Do you allow yourself to think, "What if Eric Walker would’ve been healthy?"

I’m human, aren’t I? I wonder if Eric would’ve been healthy, if we would’ve won that game against Oregon State in the winners' bracket? Even if we had lost, I probably, knowing what Eric was dealing with, would not have brought him back on Saturday. I probably still would’ve gone with the rotation the way we had it there, but the difference would have been that we would’ve had Eric Walker pitching Monday for us at Florida and I can’t help but believe the result could’ve been different.

I think Eric Walker was very capable of holding Florida to a run or two runs or no runs and we could’ve scratched across three and beaten them 3-2, 3-1 or 3-0. Sure, I go to bed at night and think that could’ve happened. But no matter how much I think it, it doesn’t matter, because what is done is done. We lost him at a critical time of the year, and we still were competitive in the game; we just didn’t quite have enough.

Do you think the CWS format could be changed to allow teams not to have to do what you did and start a guy for Game 1 of the championship series who had thrown 15 innings all season? Could you push it back a week?

I don’t think it’s going to change. It is what it is, and it’s the same for everybody. I do think it’s a little bit of a shame that, when you get to the finals and it’s a best-two-out-of-three, that your top pitcher can’t pitch in the finals unless you get to Game 3.

Everybody would’ve liked to have seen an Alex Lange/Alex Faedo matchup.

Sure. But then Faedo would’ve been pitching on three days' rest, and Lange would’ve had to pitch on four days' rest, which neither have done all year. But your best pitchers aren’t pitching, and you have an injury and now you’re having to go even deeper than your third-best starting pitcher. I don’t know; I haven’t thought much about it, because I know it is the way it is. For so many years, it was just a single-game championship. They changed it to best-two-out-of-three, we’ve won it best-two-out-of-three, but that year we won the first game and we would’ve won it with just the one game. ...

It is what it is, I knew the rules going in and everybody else has to deal with the same setup. I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other about the format changing. ... You’ve just got to deal with it.

What was the thing that happened this year that you didn’t see coming quite the way it did?

I think the most obvious was Zach Watson and his evolution into the outstanding player that he became. I thought he was one of our most important players through the last two-thirds of the season, if not three-quarters of the season. Coming out of fall practice, not many people expected Zach to play such an important role on our team, but when we put him in center field and put Antoine (Duplantis) in left, it really made our outfield defense outstanding. I also think Zach became a very important offensive cog in our lineup.

I always had great hope for Eric Walker, Josh Smith and Zack Hess. I didn’t know that we would have to move Zack to the bullpen for the reasons that we did, but I think he flourished there and made us a stronger team. Outside of that, I think the season went as we expected as far as the performance of the players that we were counting on. I think we ended up where we thought we would be: in Omaha playing for a national championship. So there weren’t too many surprises; I think it just took us a while to fulfill our destiny.

Your team went 25-3 in your final 28 games. What do you think it is about your teams getting hot at the end of the year?

I think it’s something that we’ve preached to them from Day 1 — not only this year, but every year before that. ... That’s the goal of every coach, to see their team progress. If we started out the season 25-0, there’s only one way to go.

We try to win every game, but the important thing is winning games and finding out who you can really count on. Part of that is to find the weaknesses of your team, the limitations of your team. If all you see are the positives, then you can’t improve on those things that end up being your Achilles' heel in the postseason or the late season, even in Omaha. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take three steps forward. That’s the nature of baseball, and I think it’s smart to do it that way so you can be strong at the end of the season.

Our players are groomed to feel the same way I feel, because we talk about it all the time. You can’t look too far ahead (and) you can’t look behind; you deal with the most immediate challenge that you have. As you keep building their confidence, the season wears on, and that confidence continues to grow until you reach those last days, and you want them to be playing at their very best. It’s something I’ve believed in for a lot of years as a coach, as the leader of the program. ...

It was a concept I started to see come to fruition with my teams at Notre Dame, and I thought when we came to LSU, just because we can play early in the season outdoors and practice and so forth, the concept of still improving as the year goes on would still be very important in determining what kind of season you end up having.

Only a handful of pitchers in LSU history have won 30 games in their career, and you had two on this year’s team in Alex Lange and Jared Poché. What was it like for you every Friday and Saturday to hand the ball to two of the better pitchers in school history?

Alex Lange didn’t pitch on Friday nights until about halfway through his sophomore year. It always bothered me when he received criticism. He was 12-0 as a freshman and everybody said, "Oh, he’s not pitching as well as a sophomore or junior," when in fact he was probably pitching better; it was just the results were not better because he was lining up against the other team’s No. 1 starter. In this league, the other team’s No. 1 starters are generally first-round draft choices, therefore some games are going to be very low-scoring. He lost to Alex Faedo 1-0 at Florida. You’re going to have games like that.

I think Alex also showed his true grit and greatness when he didn’t pitch a great game yet he still burned up innings to save the bullpen for the next two days. That may have led us to victories in Game 2 or Game 3 (of the series). I think Alex Lange had a tremendous career here, and he gave us a fighting chance on Friday nights, which is what you’re supposed to do.

If there is ever a category of guys who got the most out of their ability, I think Jared Poché would be the captain of that team. He didn’t have the overpowering radar reading, great curveball-throwing stuff. He had courage. He had fortitude. He had the competitive zeal that allowed him to probably accomplish more than just his talent should have allowed him to do. What greater compliment can you give to a person than that? Whenever Jared pitched, you knew he was going to fight for his team and give his team the best chance to win a game. Some days, it caught up. Some days, he got hit and we ended up losing the game. But most of the time, he was going to give his team a chance to win.

Having those two guys for the first two games of a weekend series for the last three years was a tremendous joy, and I felt very blessed to be able to have those guys. Losing them is going to be a big gap to fill for our team.

How did you like the way the new-look coaching staff worked this season?

A lot of people outside of our program were critical when we had to make changes in November. People thought I wanted to surround myself with yes men. That was the furthest thing from the truth.

Did I want to surround myself with people that were loyal? Yes. Did I want to surround myself with competent baseball men? Yes. Did I want to surround myself with proven winners? Yes. Did I think the youth of Micah (Gibbs) and Nolan (Cain) was going to be an asset to our team by virtue of them being able to relate to players because of a slight age difference as well as the fact that they won a national championship because they went to Omaha? Would our players be sponges and learn from those guys, because they know what it takes? Yes. I thought it worked out remarkably well.

I think our players had great respect for Micah and Nolan, and the added bonus was Sean Ochinko being an undergraduate coach for the year. I think our players looked up to all three of those men, and that they all did a tremendous job. We couldn’t have won 52 games and been in the finals at Omaha without their efforts.

It hurt me when people criticized them, because there was no basis for the criticism. They performed, they got the players to perform, they worked hard, they’re loyal to LSU, they love this program and they all did a tremendous job. I think people should accept the fact that they’re really outstanding coaches, and we should feel grateful to have them as part of our staff here.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.