Call it the selective memory series.
It’s hard to imagine any two teams squaring off in NCAA super regionals across this fruited plain more intimately familiar than LSU and Mississippi State.
WHO: Mississippi State vs. LSU
LSU coach Paul Mainieri probably knows how much State coach Andy Cannizaro can bench-press. Cannizaro, Mainieri’s top assistant the previous two seasons, probably knows just which red wine Mainieri prefers with his veal parmigiana.
They play every year. They played three weeks ago. The Tigers swept three from the Bulldogs in Starkville, Mississippi, to close out the regular season with the Southeastern Conference and Western Division titles on the line.
That was big. This is bigger. The super regional trophy comes with a flight to Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series. For programs like LSU and State, it’s the true measuring stick that even a stack of SEC titles can’t surpass.
These are two teams, such heated and ancient rivals, that also happen to be very close in most statistical categories. LSU ranks second in hitting in the SEC, State third. The Bulldogs overcame the Tigers for first in SEC fielding last week after LSU’s error fest in the regional.
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The only big difference — and it is significant — is LSU’s once-maligned pitching staff now ranks second in the SEC in ERA (3.54). State’s staff has been ravaged by injuries this season and ranks only ahead of Alabama and Georgia in ERA (4.82).
Statistical comparisons dim, however, when the group of teams gets whittled down like this, to the final 16 in eight super regionals. So you look for the psychological edge.
LSU wants to forget the sweep, and the sticky fact that the degree of difficulty in taking two series from a top-notch team in one season is approaching the level of an Ashleigh Gnat vault. In other words, it's tough.
“I can’t emphasize enough that what happened there three weeks ago will have no bearing on what happens here,” Mainieri said Friday.
“Someone asked me earlier in the week if it’s hard to beat a team five times in one year. Well, we’re not looking at it that way. We’re only looking at it to have to beat them twice. The three games we’ve already played are ancient history. We don’t think about them, we don’t talk about them. All we’re focusing on is this weekend.”
There is one bit of motivational mental celluloid the Tigers cling to. That’s the image of Coastal Carolina’s players going bonkers as they dogpiled in the middle of Alex Box Stadium after sweeping LSU in last year’s super regional.
“We’ve kind of let that motivate us throughout this year,” All-American right fielder Greg Deichmann said. “None of us want to feel that again, and we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Across the diamond, Cannizaro was playing psychological mind games to the hilt.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” he said, clearly relishing the moment. “They’re the most dynamic team in the country. They have everything you look for in a college baseball team. That train is rolling. And here we are: big, bad LSU versus Mississippi State.”
It’s inaccurate to say that Cannizaro’s guys don't have weapons of their own. State does have outfielder Brent Rooker, the SEC player of the year, aiming for the first triple crown season in conference history since State’s Rafael Palmeiro earned it in 1984.
The Bulldogs will throw their best pitcher, Konnor Pilkington (8-5, 3.26 ERA), against LSU ace Alex Lange (9-5, 2.87) in a matchup that will go a long way toward determining who ultimately wins.
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Even if LSU claims the opener Saturday, the Tigers can’t rest easy. State leads the nation with 25 come-from-behind wins. It won four games in two days to pole vault out of the loser’s bracket in the Hattiesburg regional.
LSU will bring bats and gloves and eye black to The Box. They’d better have some wooden stakes and strings of garlic close by, too.
“We’ve been in position a lot of times this year where people have doubted us,” Rooker said. “We’ve been underdogs all year, and that hasn’t changed this weekend.”
LSU is the superior team with one of the best home-field advantages in the game. But these Tigers also know a bit of what the 2011 LSU football team felt when it beat Alabama in the “Game of the Century,” then had to play the Crimson Tide in the BCS championship game.
We already beat these guys, the Tigers had to be thinking then. We have to play them again?
LSU knows the path to Omaha as well as any program, with an NCAA-best 17 trips to the CWS over the past 31 seasons. But this situation is almost off the charts — even for this program, which last met an SEC rival in the super regionals back in 1999, going 0-2 at Alabama.
If there is a psychological factor in LSU’s favor, other than the Tigers’ five straight wins over State dating to last season, it’s that the Bulldogs aren’t some unknown upstart. This isn’t Stony Brook. Or Davidson. Or even Coastal Carolina. State is a known baseball commodity, a fellow SEC baseball superpower, the Red Sox to LSU’s Yankees.
That, and the bitter lessons of 2016’s super regional, are what Deichmann believes will carry the Tigers through.
“We learned last year as soon as you start pressing, it’s over with,” he said. “Last year we pressed a little bit. We’re going to do what we’ve done all year to keep it loose.”
The stage is set for LSU's super regional baseball series against Mississippi state — that i…
Loose enough to make the kind of memory that suits them best.