The dark sky and the irregular drumbeat of rain lashing my office windows when I dialed LSU coach Paul Mainieri were the latest reminder of what we’ve lost in recent months.
Under normal circumstances, May showers are a standard, if unfortunate, topic of conversation between baseball coaches and the people who cover them, at least for those who don’t believe in HooDoo and jinxes.
These, of course, are not normal times. Though the state took its first cautious steps toward reopening this week, the 2020 LSU baseball season has long been shuttered. Mainieri can, for once, not worry about rain in May. He certainly wishes he could.
But that didn’t have to stop a coach and a reporter from talking about the weather. So, when Mainieri asked me what we’d be talking about this week, I said why not the rain? Surely Mainieri, who has been at this coaching thing longer than I’d been alive, would have plenty of rain-delay material to work with.
“As soon as I think of a rain delay, my immediate thought goes back to 2009, the last game of the regular season at Mississippi State,” Mainieri said.
It was the way everything lined up so well for LSU going into that weekend, but it was also the way everything came so close to falling apart. The Tigers had enjoyed a tremendous season to that point and simply needed to match Ole Miss that final weekend to clinch Mainieri’s first outright Southeastern Conference title.
Mississippi State was the worst team in the SEC that season (final conference record: 9-20), and Ole Miss was playing at Arkansas, one of the more difficult road venues in the country. Match Ole Miss, win the league outright, and as long as LSU stayed within at least one game of Ole Miss that weekend, it would earn a share of the conference title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
But even in charmed years like LSU’s 2009 season, chaos always seems to force its way in. LSU and Mississippi State split the first two games, while Ole Miss won its first two, setting up a dramatic series finale Mainieri was hoping to avoid.
But the true havoc was saved for midway through that final game in Starkville, Mississippi. LSU was taking care of business, jumping out to a 6-1 lead in the third inning, when the dark skies erupted, unleashing a torrent on Dudy Noble Field. Mainieri stewed in the dugout, where he learned Ole Miss was pummeling Arkansas on its way to a sweep.
For what felt like eons he sat there watching a sky that refused to lighten, knowing his team needed to play at least two more innings for this game to count as official.
“I honestly believe that day that if it wasn’t Mississippi State and Ole Miss? Mississippi State would have just blown off the game,” Mainieri said. “They would’ve said, ‘Eh, we’re not doing anything to get the field ready.’ But I don’t think they wanted Ole Miss to win the (outright) championship.”
As if propelled by the winds of pettiness, the skies did the unthinkable and began to clear, a shock of blue blasting through the bleak gray. Mainieri aged a lot in a delay that lasted a little less than two hours — “the most miserable two hours I’ve had in coaching — but it ended, and LSU went on to thrash the Bulldogs behind three Leon Landry homers, splitting the SEC title with Ole Miss.
With the win, LSU finished with a clean sweep that season: SEC West title, SEC overall title (both shared with Ole Miss), SEC tournament title, regional, super regional and College World Series titles.
“But if that rain had stopped the game from being completed, we wouldn’t have won the SEC west, nor would we have won the SEC overall, and who knows if we would have won the tournament,” Mainieri said.
He had a couple more rain delay stories, ones that didn’t work out so well. We chatted about it for a bit, Mainieri laughing at the stories of rain-delay feats that are OK to laugh about decades later, when I bring up one that strikes a nerve.
What about the 2012 super regional against Stony Brook?
“Oh,” Mainieri said. “Well...“
He trailed off. He has a lot of thoughts about that one, because that was one that got away. The rain is still pounding away, but that is not what gets Mainieri started. Some losses are always near and at hand.
People forget that first game, Mainieri said, when Stony Brook pushed LSU to the brink and the Tigers responded with game-tying solo homers in the ninth, 10th and 11th innings to keep the game going, keep it going long enough for Mother Nature to hit the pause button with a thunderstorm.
They had to resume the next morning, and LSU won the game. One win away from Omaha. People forget about that insane rally and about the opening win because of what happened next. Two straight losses to a school many had never heard, Stony Brook taking a victory lap in Alex Box as a stunned, defeated LSU team reckoned with the end of its season.
In the past couple weeks Mainieri has shared stories about his national champion team and about his late mentor, Don Shula, but he’d hoped this week we could go into some detail on the disappointments. Here I’d just accidentally flipped on the light switch, illuminating them.
The details started pouring out of Mainieri. He has conviction. Still, he believes with a few breaks here or there — an errant throw finds its target, a sharp liner freely screams to the outfield corner instead of a third baseman’s glove — we’d be talking about his three or four College World Series titles instead of the one, and his thoughts would not be so consumed by the disappointments.
He runs through them. In a span of five years, from 2013-17, he had four teams he felt capable of winning the College World Series by the time the postseason arrived. None of them did. He has an especially hard time getting over what happened with the 2013 team.
Before that team left for Omaha, Mainieri and his star freshman shortstop had a private conversation. Wouldn’t it be something, he said to Alex Bregman, if they went there and ran through the thing? Together they’d won 57 games in 66 tries. Go on a run in Omaha, win the thing, and they might be considered one of the best ever.
The loss to UCLA in the opener that year was one thing, but Mainieri still kicks himself for what happened next. He says it’s the only regret he really has in his LSU coaching career.
Mainieri wanted to start his closer, left-hander Chris Cotton, in an elimination game against top seed North Carolina. But he didn’t pull the trigger, starting Cody Glenn instead. By the time Cotton entered the game in the seventh, LSU was trailing 4-1.
“Of all the decisions I’ve had to make in my time at LSU, the biggest regret I have is not starting Chris Cotton in that game,” Mainieri said.
Mainieri is fully aware he doesn’t know what would’ve happened if he started Cotton that game. Maybe LSU wins but then North Carolina State gets to Ryan Eades the next game and the season ends. But maybe they’d have gotten the ball back in Aaron Nola’s hands, too.
Who knows what would’ve happened if Raph Rhymes’ hard shot on a hit and run late in that first 2013 CWS game wasn’t speared by UCLA’s third baseman to start a rally-killing double play in the ninth inning, or if LSU didn’t blow a four-run lead in the eighth inning against Houston a year later, or if Jared Poché never committed that first error against TCU in Game 1 of the 2015 CWS, or if Eric Walker never hurt his arm in Omaha in 2017?
Who knows what would’ve happened if not for the rain that made it tough for ace Kevin Gausman to grip his pitches in 2012?
“It just gnaws at you,” Mainieri said. “You know how hard it is to win games, but that doesn’t make you feel any better. A few breaks here and there, and man, we could be sitting here talking about three or four national championships instead of one.”
It was still raining outside. With no games in the here and now to fret over in the storm, the only ones remaining were those that are always there.