OMAHA, Neb. — After winning 54 games, the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and being ranked No. 1 most of the season, LSU’s season ended far quicker than most people thought it would.
Perhaps given the way the Tigers had to parade pitchers to the mound Thursday night against TCU, it’s a little remarkable the Tigers got this far.
Two years ago, LSU went 0-2 in the College World Series and the culprit seemed to be hitting in cavernous new TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. So the Tigers went more for speed and craftiness instead of thumpers who could drive the ball deep (to the warning track here, not into the bleachers).
This time, LSU’s shortcoming seemed to be pitching.
Maybe Mac Marshall staying instead of bolting for junior college after enrolling at LSU would have made the difference. Maybe it would have been a healthy Jake Latz, a freshman pitcher held in even higher esteem than unbeaten Alex Lange before the season began.
A little cunning and cuteness, some mirrors and misdirection, covered up those starting pitching deficiencies throughout the long regular season in the nation’s toughest conference and even through the NCAA regional and super regional.
But there’s a saying in baseball: the ball finds you. Omaha finds you, too. If you have a weakness, or aren’t playing at your highest level coming to the College World Series, your weaknesses will be exposed.
LSU beat Cal State Fullerton 5-3 on Tuesday, pounding out 13 hits, looking like the Tigers you saw most of the season. But the Titans were outmatched, a team that got hot and got lucky at the right time to make what the record books will make look like yet another expected CWS appearance for that proud program.
LSU almost couldn’t lose that game, especially with Lange dealing for eight strong innings Tuesday after a rocky three-run first inning. But against TCU, the ball found LSU’s weak points.
The Horned Frogs beat the Tigers 10-3 and 8-4, two pretty dominant defeats. TCU beat LSU very simply with two things that the Tigers lacked. The Frogs had more timely hitting and better overall pitching, particularly out of the bullpen.
Sunday, the architect of LSU’s demise was TCU starter Preston Morrison. Thursday, it was reliever Trey Teakell, who entered in a 3-3 tie in the fourth inning, took the Tigers’ bats and put them in a locked closet.
Thirteen up, 13 down for Teakell, eliminating the Tigers one after another over 4.1 spotless innings. That he only needed 36 pitches added to the marvel of his mastery.
That LSU was unable to find that brilliant pitcher, those big hits, will be galling to the Tigers and their faithful. They aren’t the first highly regarded team to come to Omaha and come up short, and they certainly won’t be the last. A shot at a seventh national championship will be on hold for the foreseeable future, especially considering LSU is likely to lose all but one of its starting position players (Jake Fraley is a sophomore) to graduation and/or professional baseball.
The biggest loss is Alex Bregman. His three years in Baton Rouge seem so fleeting now, years that came and went without a national title that seemed almost predestined to happen.
“The road to Omaha (for 2016) starts now,” Bregman said, before referring to the guys in his locker room who will be returning, a group that doesn’t include him. “They’ll scratch and claw and fight their way back.”
The Houston Astros made Bregman the second overall pick in this year’s draft, and the millions attached to that pick make it certain he won’t return. But he left his calling card before departing, a spinning throw out of TCU third baseman Derek Odell on a grounder up the middle in the fourth inning that seemed destined to be a hit.
Of course now that Bregman is done, it shows destiny isn’t always what you think will be.
“I can’t imagine life without Alex Bregman,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Considering all the success the Tigers have had in this town, in this event, it’s always hard to imagine LSU going home without the championship trophy.
All the great programs — LSU, Texas, Miami, USC — that have been dominant in their days have all gone home empty-handed more often than they’ve finished on top.
Maybe next time the Tigers return, they’ll have the combination needed to win a title here.
Even if that happens next year, it will be a long wait.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.