OMAHA, Neb. — It has been a long way, but the LSU Tigers are back, their road to the College World Series paved with good indentions.
It has been only two years, but so much has changed, mirrored in the tiny scrapes and scratches in the Tigers’ bats from so many big hits this season.
LSU came to the CWS two years ago or, more to the point, to its new home at TD Ameritrade Park, and found the game had changed incredibly from the way it was played at old Rosenblatt Stadium.
There, the Tigers belted 12 home runs en route to the 2009 national championship. But in 2013, despite a gaudy 57-9 record, LSU was ushered out of Omaha after going 0-2, its big bats rendered impotent by a home run-swallowing ballpark that played much bigger than its predecessor.
So the Tigers retooled and rebuilt and returned to the College World Series this year, their engine overhauled, their angle of attack recalibrated.
Despite a mini-ice age in the NCAA regional and super regional, the Tigers have hit throughout the 2015 season, each base knock and each extra base another signpost on their mission to get back to Omaha.
Ding … ding … ding … ding … ding.
Home runs are supposed to be in style again in Omaha, this quintessentially American town that is hardly enslaved by the latestfashion trends, thanks to the flatter-seamed, go-go baseball introduced for this season.
But these Tigers don’t have to trade in knockout blows. Their success in 2015, a 53-10 record (best in the CWS), the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and a 17th trip here, hasn’t been thanks to a sequel of Geauxrilla ball. These Tigers are content to inflict some pain here and some damage there and let the judges add up the decision on points at game’s end.
“We aren’t built on the three-run home run,” first-year hitting coach Andy Cannizaro said. “I think we are made to play in this ballpark.”
Two years ago, the Tigers hit shot after shot that billowed up into the winds that typically drive into TD Ameritrade and watched them find outfield leather rather than a seat in the bleachers. The frustration of that trip remains imbedded in the Tigers’ collective memory like words chiseled into marble.
Instead of a lot of high, towering shots, Cannizaro taught the Tigers to hit more line drives, the kind of balls that will find the gaps in this Nebraska ballpark’s wide-open prairie acres. And they learned that denting the outfield wall is almost as good as going over it, especially if a second Tiger can follow the first with another back-to-back extra-base hit.
And once on the bases, the Tigers have learned how to fly. Their speed over the dirt is nearly matchless, unless the other team has American Pharoah on the roster, especially in the outfield. Andrew Stevenson, Mark Laird and Jake Fraley could fill out three-fourths of a pretty swift relay team for LSU track coach Dennis Shaver. No team still going has more stolen bases than LSU’s 126, though TCU isn’t running too far behind with 117.
Of course, there is the memory of that offensive brownout in the earlier rounds of the tournament still lingering. The Tigers looked like they may have re-energized themselves in their super regional-clinching win over Louisiana-Lafayette, scoring six runs over the final three innings, but the real test will come Sunday against the Horned Frogs’ superb pitching staff.
Alex Bregman was the poster boy for LSU’s recent batting funk, and he may have been the instigator for the Tigers’ escape from it with a two-run single in the eighth against UL-Lafayette. He’s ready for the challenge TCU is sure to bring.
“I’m just eager to hopefully barrel a few balls up,” he said.
They rebuilt it. And here they come.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.