If you come here seeking a column in the wake of LSU’s super regional loss to Coastal Carolina that eviscerates Paul Mainieri and his coaching staff, well, you should flip over to the obituary pages.
I come not to bury Mainieri and his 2016 Tigers, but to praise them. Praise for squeezing maximum mileage out of this half-full tank of a team. For being a top-eight NCAA tournament seed for the fifth straight year, the best such streak going in college baseball.
Praise for getting as close as LSU did to going to Omaha for the 18th time in 31 seasons.
And the praise in advance for the kind of top-five team they’re likely to assemble for 2017.
Don’t get me wrong. If you play, support or coach LSU baseball, this two-game super regional sweep that wrapped up with the Chanticleers’ 4-3 victory Sunday night is super disappointing. For want of a timely hit, or one better defensive play (I’m thinking of Greg Deichmann’s diving gaffe in the first inning that helped two runs score later), LSU might have won Game 2 Sunday night and been playing the Chants in a winner-take-all showdown Monday at Alex Box Stadium.
But LSU broke down just enough in its two games with Coastal — pitching in Game 1, hitting with runners in scoring position and defensive fundamentals in Game 2 — for the Chanticleers to take advantage.
Many will be reminded, of course, of the ignominy of losing to Stony Brook in the super regional here four years ago and compare this with that. That was a shocker, LSU’s first in a home super regional and against a regional No. 4 seed to boot. But that loss and this are mainly paired in most minds because Stony Brook and Coastal Carolina aren’t name brands. A super regional loss to Arizona or Oklahoma or N.C. State — the host team CCU beat in the Raleigh regional — would be easier to swallow.
Fact is Coastal was the better team. Its gaudy offensive numbers did transfer to the pressure cooker that can be postseason baseball at The Box. It had just enough pitching — having thrown its two best starters and ace closer Mike Morrison, CCU had to sink or swim with Bobby Holmes — and the big edge in experience and chemistry. Six Game 1 CCU starters (plus pitcher Andrew Beckwith) were juniors or seniors, a precious commodity in college baseball.
LSU was that team in 2015, that team that won the Southeastern Conference, went 54-12 and reached the College World Series. This team was a rebuilding job after the loss of every regular position starter save Jake Fraley.
Mainieri and staff filled those holes admirably with a blossoming Kramer Robertson at short, a heavy-hitting Deichmann at first, Cole Freeman at second and Chris Reid, the replacement’s replacement (remember O’Neal Lochridge?) at third. Beau Jordan and Antoine Duplantis joined Fraley in the outfield.
But when Beau and twin brother Bryce slumped at the plate in the postseason — neither had a hit after LSU’s regional opener against Utah Valley — there were precious few options. Jordan Romero replaced Bryce at designated hitter Sunday, having lost his catcher’s job to his own postseason slump and the marked improvement of MichaelPapierski, but the results didn’t change much.
Most of Mainieri’s pushed buttons this season worked. A few could be questioned — like pinch-running for the power-hitting Romero in the eighth Sunday with Brennan Breaux when Deichmann was on base ahead of him at second. That left him to pinch-hit Brody Wofford with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth. Wofford fanned, and LSU’s ability to merely tie the score at 3 instead of taking the lead was a fatal shortcoming.
Overall, this LSU team was a game and gritty underdog (or underpossum, if you prefer) that managed to win 45 games and be a national seed in a year when the Tigers probably had no business doing either.
In 2017, if healthy, LSU will probably be deserving of no such quarter. The Tigers return Alex Lange as their ace starter, and bulldog Jared Poché is at least considering coming back for his senior season. LSU should at least be able to find an elusive third starter from among Jake Latz, Caleb Gilbert or a newcomer if that happens.
Hunter Newman will be back to be the closer. Fraley, a first-day draft pick, will sign his lucrative pro deal. But if Robertson returns as expected as a senior, there will be precious few places for newcomers to crack the lineup. Perhaps at second, where the junior Freeman also has a decision to make after being an 18th-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
A lot of ifs, like always, but if LSU can check all or most of them, the Tigers will be one potent team next season. A team for which anything less than Omaha would indeed be a failure. Kind of like Louisville, the No. 2 national seed, failed this year when it got run by UC Santa Barbara.
But for now, it’s over. And LSU baseball on balance deserves a “well done” for a season that by all rights should have ended well short of where it did.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter,@RabalaisAdv.