If you play or coach baseball at LSU, the expectations never relent.
It’s there from the moment you arrive at Alex Box Stadium for batting practice or a game and see the six national championship flags snapping in the breeze. Or the faces of LSU All-Americans, staring expectantly from plaques on the iron and brick fence ringing the ballpark.
Then there’s the championship plaza in front of The Box, a Stonehenge-like monument featuring huge markers commemorating LSU’s six College World Series-winning teams.
There is room in the plaza for more monuments. Many more. And with every page turned on the calendar since the program’s last title in 2009, the question only grows:
When will Tigers find their seventh heaven?
LSU has won a combined 150 games the past three seasons, most of any team in the nation. The Tigers have been a top-eight NCAA tournament seed each of those years.
But LSU has just one CWS appearance (in 2013) to show for it. And the Tigers, despite going to Omaha with a school-record-tying 57 wins that year, were two-and-barbecue.
The mix of success tinged with disappointment is something known only by a few, like Kentucky in basketball or the New York Yankees in the major leagues.
And on Gourrier Lane, the otherwise nondescript road that leads past the home of the most successful college baseball program of the last 25 years.
“Baseball,” Tigers shortstop Alex Bregman said, “is a game of failure. And the intensity is always high at LSU.”
It may be a new season, but little has changed in terms of expectations.
The Tigers have a veteran lineup, led by the All-American Bregman, an all-out baseball grinder who hasn’t gone one day since LSU’s season ended June 2 without taking batting practice, playing a summer league game, or fielding grounders.
Add returnees like 2014 freshman All-American Jake Fraley and fellow outfielders Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird, and the Tigers have a pretty strong offense returning. The core of the pitching staff, four talented true freshman, is greener that the outfield grass at The Box, though. A Southeastern Conference weekend rotation and a closer have to be identified. And quickly.
Despite that, LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who makes no attempt to hide his baseball emotions high or low, bubbles with optimism for the new season.
“I go into the year believing we will go to Omaha and win the national championship,” said Mainieri, entering his ninth season here. “But we’ll have a lot of competition along the way. You have to be good, but you have to be good at the right time.
“Occasionally, you have to have a little bit of luck, too.”
Luck hasn’t been on the Tigers’ side the last three Junes.
In 2012, LSU hosted Stony Brook in the super regional round — an obscure off-, off-, off-Broadway program from Long Island, New York. The Tigers met a stony end against the Seawolves, who were so inspired by the biggest weekend in program history they went 0-2 in Omaha.
In 2013, the Tigers made it to the CWS but seemed ill-suited to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, the sparkling new home to the College World Series, where home runs go to die. The Tigers flailed about for two games with lots of warning-track power before being sent home with losses to eventual champ UCLA and North Carolina.
In 2014, LSU looked like it was cruising to the super regional round before squandering a four-run eighth-inning lead to Houston. The Tigers lost 5-4 in 11 innings and played on an empty tank the next night, routed 12-2 by the Cougars in the first winner-take-all home NCAA tournament loss ever for LSU.
So close — but for the Tigers, still not an inch closer to covering the 950 miles to Omaha than if they had never started.
“We’re right there,” said Mainieri, who was asked at Friday’s baseball media day if there was pressure to get to Omaha — and win — this season.
“In time you step back and assess. Is the program healthy? We’ve won 19 titles the last seven years, by far the most in our conference.”
By 19 titles, Mainieri means CWS, regional, super regional, Southeastern Conference, SEC tournament and SEC Western Division crowns. It’s an impressive haul, certainly.
But that 2009 championship flag is starting to age around the edges. And Mainieri knows the Everest-like level of expectations at LSU better than anyone.
“You can’t validate the season if you don’t go to Omaha,” he said.
For players like Stevenson, that kind of pressure comes with the outfield territory he roams.
“You know what to expect when you come here,” he said. “You accept it. You try to have fun with it.”
If you’re LSU, though, there is only one true joy standing on the precipice of a fresh new baseball season.
That’s being the last team standing at the end of it.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.