Optimism runs high this time of year in college baseball, especially for the eight teams who know their path to the College World Series runs through their home ballparks.
Those eight teams were rewarded for successfully making it through the 56-game gauntlet of a regular season, plus in many cases an extended run in the conference tournament. They have been gifted premium positioning for a deep NCAA tournament run.
But positioning only provides so much of a comforting advantage. The real test is about to begin, one that has proven to be quantifiably more difficult to ace in recent seasons than it has been historically.
“Once that first pitch is made, being a national seed doesn’t impact you one iota,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “It’s been proven that if you’re not a national seed, you can get to Omaha, and it’s been proven that if you are a national seed, it doesn’t guarantee you get to go to Omaha. You’ve got to go out there and play the game.”
If anybody is familiar with that, it is LSU. The Tigers just claimed their sixth consecutive national seed and eighth in the past 10 years — more than anybody else in that span. But the heartbreak has been nearly as common as the elation of a celebratory dog pile to kick off the Omaha festivities.
LSU has reached college baseball’s premier event four times in seven tries as a national seed under Mainieri. It has also lost a series in the regional round to Houston and the super regional round to Stony Brook and Coastal Carolina.
"It may have appeared in past years that we would’ve taken a Houston or a Stony Brook or a Coastal Carolina lightly," Mainieri said. "That was not the case at all. They were all very good teams. They were legitimate ballclubs. We tried as hard as we could to win those games."
HOOVER, Ala. — There has never been a perfect baseball team, and there never will.
At a place like LSU, success is measured in championships. The Intimidator billboard beyond the right-field bleachers lists only the six years that resulted in LSU as the last team standing, not the 30 NCAA tournament bids, 10 national seeds or 17 College World Series appearances.
It is an Intimidator, but it is also an albatross. The expectation, no matter the circumstances, is not only to make it to Omaha but to have a good showing there.
“When you come to LSU, you know what you’re getting into,” Mainieri said. “The expectations are through the roof. There’s a strong history and tradition of winning baseball games and winning championships.
“If you’re afraid of those expectations, you ought not to come to LSU, because it’ll suffocate you.”
But LSU is certainly not alone in seeing a promising season come to a disappointing early end, especially in recent history.
The current NCAA baseball tournament format — which features a 64-team field split up into 16 four-team regional sites and eight national seeds who are guaranteed home passage as long as they continue to win — has been in place since the 1999 season.
But the 18 seasons under the current format need to be split up into two eras, because rule changes implanted before the start of the 2010 season seem to have hit the desired mark of making the sport more competitive across the board.
The rule changes imposed a 35-man roster limit, and stated that no more than 27 athletes could earn part of the 11.7 scholarships Division I college baseball teams have at their disposal.
LSU’s 2000 championship roster, for instance, was loaded with 42 players. This season, LSU did not even start with a full 35-man roster and has gone through much of the year with 31 because of injuries and defections.
It has affected the college baseball landscape as a whole. Before the 2010 season, major programs like LSU could be offer an intriguing prospect a partial scholarship — say, 5 percent to cover books — and stash him away on the roster in case he developed into a star.
Now those players are becoming stars at smaller programs, leveling the playing field.
“The mid-majors, the nontraditional baseball powers, it’s made them stronger,” Mainieri said. “Southeastern Louisiana has players on its team we would’ve loved to have recruited to LSU. We just couldn’t because we didn’t have the roster spots available.”
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From 1999 to 2009, 56 of 88 national seeds advanced to the College World Series — a 63.6 percent success rate. In those 11 seasons, only once did less than half of the eight national seeds make it to the College World Series.
In the seven seasons since the rule changes were implemented, that number has dropped a full 19 percent. Only 25 of the 56 national seeds (43.6 percent) since 2010 have reached Omaha, and only once in that time frame (2011) have more than half advanced to the College World Series.
The effect has been evident once the College World Series starts, as well.
National seeds are on a five-year drought in College World Series championships. The last team to earn a top-eight seeding and go on to win the NCAA tournament was No. 4 seed South Carolina in 2011. The last two champions, Coastal Carolina and Virginia, did not play a single home game in the tournament.
Simple mathematics can help explain the lack of national seed champions in the past five years. Only 16 national seeds have advanced to the College World Series since 2011. The 40 percent success rate of national seeds reaching Omaha over the past five seasons is the lowest of any five-year period in the current format.
Even so, the rule changes may just be exaggerating a deeper trend — after national seeds won each of the first five tournaments under the current format, only two have won in the 13 seasons since — South Carolina in 2011 and LSU in 2009.
Miami remains the only No. 1 seed to win the College World Series, and it did it in the first year under the new format.
LSU is aware of all of this, sometimes painfully so.
Senior shortstop Kramer Robertson has played for three other teams who have attained national seeds. He was injured and could not compete in the 2015 College World Series, meaning he has only experienced postseason letdown at home.
“It speaks to the strength of college baseball,” Robertson said. “… By no means does being a national seed … guarantee anything. You have to go out there and earn it.”
Only one team will enter the NCAA baseball tournament with a longer winning streak than LSU'…
Regardless of the iffy recent track record of national seeds, LSU will still gladly take the opportunity to host all the way to Omaha.
Earning a national seed still means something to Mainieri, beyond the advantages that come with playing at home. The selection committee has viewed LSU as one of the eight best teams in the country for eight of his 11 seasons.
What would mean more is making it count.
“I’m really proud of that consistency that we’ve had,” Mainieri said. “We’ve gotten to Omaha four times in the previous nine years. Could we have gotten there another time or two or three? Sure. It’s still a knife stuck in my side, it’s a scar I’ll never lose. But we didn’t not get there because we stunk up the joint or choked, it was because the other team outplayed us. That’s the nature of it.
“We’ve got to win five games to get back to Omaha. We’re going to take every one of our opponents very seriously. I don’t know if that’s a lesson learned. I already knew it, but with the players, it doesn’t take any convincing to make them understand that now.”