HOOVER, Ala. — The big, glowing white “1” on the scoreboard in the Florida sixth inning told the tale for LSU and opened up an interesting question.
The one question:
Have the Tigers done enough here in the Southeastern Conference tournament to merit a top-eight NCAA tournament seed?
At 42-18 after a 1-0 loss to the Gators and with a No. 6 RPI entering the day, LSU is a cinch to be a regional host when the NCAA releases this week’s 16 sites Sunday night.
But that’s only halfway to where the Tigers need to be. A top-eight seed means if you keep winning, you don’t have to leave home until you pack your bags for Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series.
For LSU, historically, that’s meant everything. The Tigers are 0-3 in super regionals away from home since the format began in 1999.
They’re 7-1 in super regionals at LSU, the only loss to giant-killer Stony Brook in 2012.
So it boils down to that. And it means virtually everything. This is LSU, where occasional excursions to Omaha aren’t enough. Fans expect the Tigers to be in the CWS every year and win it — expectations that don’t relent, even though the Tigers started this season with eight new position starters.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri believes his Tigers are one of the nation’s top eight teams. They weren’t a month ago when they were 11-10 in the SEC, but they are now, in May, where their only two losses in 16 games are to these Gators, a team with more major league pitching than the Atlanta Braves (OK, a lot of college teams have that).
But Mainieri’s been bruised and befuddled often enough by the whims and vagaries of the NCAA selection committee not to be certain it won’t happen again.
“I have absolutely no idea what they will decide,” Mainieri said. “It’s not a very transparent process, as you know. There’s a lot of good deserving teams out there.”
That there are, many of them right here in the SEC.
Florida, No. 2 in Saturday’s RPI, is a lock as a top-eight seed. So, it’s believed, is SEC regular-season champion Mississippi State, despite its surprisingly low 11 RPI and a 1-2 showing here. Texas A&M, No. 4 in the RPI and Florida’s opponent in Sunday’s final, should also be one of the eight.
That brings us to the pull-a-name-out-of-the-hat gang: No. 6 LSU, No. 5 Ole Miss, No. 8 South Carolina and No. 9 Vanderbilt.
Vandy’s chances look shaky. The Commodores got shelled here twice; they didn’t win the SEC or the East. South Carolina did. But the Gamecocks went 0-2 in Hoover for the fourth straight year. Don’t like their chances, either.
That leaves LSU and Ole Miss, which lost to the Aggies 12-8 in Saturday’s first semifinal. The Rebels could have ended LSU’s argument if they had held onto an 8-5 lead over A&M going to the eighth. But Ole Miss unraveled and opened the door for the purple and gold.
The Tigers stumbled on the door sill. LSU’s offense is much more the strength and much less the liability it was expected to be back in February, but there are times when the Tigers’ punch deserts them. It did Saturday. LSU stranded one runner in each of the last four innings. LSU had runners at the corners and none out in the third. Never could the Tigers come up with the clutch hit like they did in their three wins here, helping Hoover native and starting pitcher Caleb Gilbert not at all.
Gilbert did all anyone could ask of him in the start, holding Florida to one run in 5.2 innings work, the run driven in by a double by Jonathan India that appeared to just about land right smack on the left-field line. A foot left, maybe even less, and the Tigers and Gators might still be locked in another marathon like they were Wednesday night/Thursday morning before LSU prevailed 5-3 in 14 innings. If there was a silver lining for the Tigers in this sliver of a loss, it’s that Mainieri now believes he has a dependable third starter in Gilbert.
But back to more pressing issues: résumés. The Rebels beat LSU two of three in Oxford this year and won two of three there from current RPI No. 1 Louisville. Then again, Ole Miss finished below LSU in the SEC West — the Tigers were third at 19-11, the Rebels fourth at 18-12. And LSU still has this 3-2 season edge on Florida.
Still, it’s even-odd. Heads or tails. Black or red on the roulette wheel, with the slight chance the ball will land on green for the Gamecocks or Commodores.
Here’s another factor:
“How many national seeds will they give the SEC?” Mainieri asked. “I can’t tell you.
“Do I think we’re deserving? Absolutely. But so do the other teams. We’ll accept whatever they say.”
It is LSU’s misfortune to be in a top-heavy league. If the Tigers were in any other conference but the SEC or ACC, they’d be its highest-rated team.
But this is the blessing and curse of SEC membership and its great wealth. It sends LSU back home, dancing on a razor’s edge, awaiting a decision beyond the Tigers’ control that could be all or nothing.