There was something different about the way this regular season ended Saturday for LSU.
There was no championship for the Tigers to celebrate. Yet there was achievement.
There was defeat with honor, and there was also victory.
And on a day when the rally possum and Triple Crown favorite Nyquist both saw their unbeaten streaks snapped, that fact that LSU’s ambition finally exceeded its grasp only served to highlight how far the Tigers came in a season, in a month, in a span of just a few games.
When his team was treading water around the middle of the Southeastern Conference pack at 11-10, LSU coach Paul Mainieri surprised his Tigers by telling them he thought they could win their last 12 games.
In a fit of audacious, youthful conquests, the Tigers nearly proved the old man right. They went 11-1. Along the way, they took two of three on the final weekend of the regular season from unanimous No. 1-ranked Florida, including a 7-3 victory that started Thursday night and didn’t end until Saturday afternoon, some 39 hours later.
That the Gators saved face with a 6-2 win in the series finale was testament to their talent. Reality bit the Tigers at the very end like a gator’s chomp — though one that lost a few teeth along the way.
The defeat in some respects served to throw LSU’s “old college try” into sharp relief in a way that even lucking into a share of the SEC regular-season title — for that’s what it would have been — could not.
The Tigers tried. They came up just short. But they learned a lot, grew up a lot, and now march into the postseason the way so many LSU baseball teams do: as the kind of team you don’t want to see show up in your part of the bracket.
“Everything happening to our team feels like it’s going in a positive direction,” Mainieri said. “We feel like we’re ascending.”
That LSU didn’t win a championship isn’t an indictment for how the Tigers performed against Florida. LSU finished 39-17 and 19-11 in SEC play. The Tigers won the SEC with 19 wins in 2012. They chose a year in which the SEC is top heavy with strong teams and rife with weak ones at the bottom to win 19 games again.
LSU needed everything to break right to claim a share of the championship this season. Going into the final game, it needed Mississippi State, Texas A&M and South Carolina to all lose. It was sort of like trying to pick 10 out of 10 on a winning keno card. Only the Aggies played along. LSU finished two games back of champion Mississippi State, a team it lost two of three against in April including a 2-1 heartbreaker.
The Tigers started 3-5 in one-run games, but acquired a taste for winning the nail biters as they went along. Thundering to their 11-1 finish, the Tigers were 6-0 in one-run games, including Friday night’s 5-4 victory over Florida that was as good theater as college baseball can provide.
Now LSU returns to Hoover, Alabama, for the SEC tournament, which the Tigers have won five times since 2008 under Mainieri. The one potential monkey wrench in LSU’s postseason express is that for the first time, the Tigers have to survive the unpredictable fortune of the tournament’s single-elimination Tuesday. LSU is the No. 5 seed and takes on No. 12 Tennessee in the late, late show of the SEC’s first day with a game humorously scheduled for 8 p.m. (delays are certain to ensue). A three-game sweep at Tennessee was part of LSU’s 11-game winning streak, though it started with a tense 2-1 victory over the Volunteers with Alex Lange throwing 121 pitches over eight brave innings.
Mainieri wouldn’t confirm Saturday evening that Lange will be his starter, though he all but said so earlier in the series. Given that he didn’t trot his ace out for an inning or two of relief — Lange threw just 39 pitches Thursday night before the storm front descended on The Box — means he can go with him Tuesday.
Whether or not LSU has enough pitching to make it through to the SEC final and win it — and making it to the final is probably at least what it would take to make the Tigers a top-eight NCAA national seed — is the big question.
There’s still a big question as to how LSU’s season will wind up. Just a month ago, the Tigers seemed fated to something not so special.
After this 12-game run, and particularly this series, they’ve proven that virtually anything is possible.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.