When you play baseball at LSU, there is nowhere to hide.
The stands at Alex Box Stadium are filled with fans who make LSU the most well-supported program in the nation year after year. Every game is televised or streamed or beamed to a hungry audience somewhere. And walking into the stadium through Champions Plaza, or onto the ballpark’s emerald green turf to glance up at “The Intimidator” in right field, you are reminded of LSU baseball’s remarkable legacy.
Heck, that field is even named after Skip Bertman, the man who led LSU to five of its six national championships and spearheaded the drive to build the new Alex Box ballpark a decade ago.
LSU baseball has returned, and expectations are high.
It is unrelenting pressure — pressure that LSU coach Paul Mainieri gladly signed up for after bigger and bigger coaching stints at St. Thomas (Florida), Air Force and Notre Dame.
But the enormity of LSU baseball is something that never quite leaves his consciousness.
“No one really knew we had a team at Air Force,” Mainieri said recently. “And not many more knew we had a team at Notre Dame.
“It’s a bit different at LSU.”
The difference for LSU baseball is truly known only by a handful of programs around the country. Kentucky and North Carolina in basketball, for example. Alabama or Ohio State in football, for another.
LSU baseball is just like them. They are programs for which a national championship is the annual goal, and getting to the College Football Playoff or the Final Four or the College World Series is the minimum acceptable standard.
For LSU baseball, the air is rare up there. And sometimes it can be hard to breathe.
The LSU baseball team announced its walk-up songs two days before the 2019 season-opener against ULM.
“I freely admit by now I thought we’ve have two more (championship) years on ‘The Intimidator.’ We’ve had four or five chances to win it all. The ball hasn’t bounced our way. We didn’t get the call. We haven’t accomplished everything we wanted to. But I still feel as positive about our players and our situation.”
LSU had plenty of success in 2017 but had to watch as the biggest of the brass rings went hurtling by them in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Tigers lost freshman right-hander Eric Walker early in that trip to Omaha; he suffered an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery and sidelined him all of 2018. It may have been the one big factor that separated LSU from that elusive seventh national title and second under Mainieri.
“I’ll go to my grave thinking if Eric Walker doesn’t get hurt, we beat Florida (in the finals),” Mainieri said. “I’ll get over that when they’re lowering me into the ground.”
Last year’s LSU team just didn’t have it. That team didn't meet the standard. Too many players lost to graduation and the major league draft, and to injury. LSU went 39-27 and failed to advance out of an NCAA regional at Oregon State.
“It was one thing after another,” Mainieri said. “It happens sometimes. You get humbled. Sometimes it’s good to get humbled. Then you don’t take success for granted.”
Odd-numbered-year greatness has become a curiously repetitive thing at LSU under Mainieri, so that has to be encouraging for 2019 on the face of it. There was the CWS championship in 2009. There were the CWS appearances in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Now its 2019, and it’s looking an awful lot like two years ago around here.
On the eve of college baseball's opening day, take a look at the Southeastern Conference's three top position players and pitchers entering the season.
“I think there is a chance for this to be our best year,” Mainieri said. “We had the No. 1 recruiting class. We had three guys who had a chance to go pro come back: Zach Watson, Zack Hess and Antoine Duplantis. A similar thing happened two years ago with Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman and Jared Poché. I feel we have three recruiting classes wrapped into one.
“This season will be an exciting one. I think we’ve got a chance.
“I got a hall pass my first year. Last year was a transition year. But in the middle 10 years, we’ve been a national seed eight times. So I’m proud of the consistency. I’m proud of the fact that every year, we’re banging on the door.”
This year's LSU team has the depth, experience, talent and youth to win it all, though a traipse to the championship is not given to anyone. As good as the Tigers are, they have had to share the No. 1 ranking with Vanderbilt. Of the five major national polls (why are there five?), the Tigers are No. 1 in three of them, with the Commodores No. 1 in the other two.
As fate would have it, LSU and Vandy aren’t scheduled to play each other in the regular season. But if and until they meet, fan and media interest will burn brighter in Baton Rouge than in Nashville.
For LSU baseball, it goes with the territory.