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LSU second baseman Cade Doughty (4) throws to first for an out against Southern Miss on Monday, June 6, 2022 at Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, Miss.

It really didn’t add up for LSU to win the NCAA Hattiesburg regional. Until it almost did.

The Tigers had to go on the road to the synthetic turf roost (I loathe synthetic turf) of a really quality team in Southern Mississippi. They had to rally from seven runs down in the eighth inning Friday night against a Kennesaw State team that had no business being seven runs up on LSU. They had to rally from four runs down in the ninth inning Saturday against USM. After losing Sunday to the Golden Eagles, they had to try and survive the suffocating pressure cooker of a Monday winner-take-all regional final when, oh yes, they trailed 7-4 in the seventh. All with a pitching staff that seemed to turn from a strength to a question mark as the weather and competition grew hotter, and a defense that you figured was ready to blow a gasket at any moment.

And yet, trailing 8-7 in the bottom of the ninth, what the Tigers had to do to advance to and host a super regional at Alex Box Stadium this weekend was down to simple mathematics and heroics. Just one LSU batter needed to reach base — a hit, a walk, a hit by pitch, an error, a hit by pitch again (this team had a lot of HBPs) — and another big swinger needed to launch one over the fence for LSU to host Ole Miss for the right to go to the College World Series. After being swept at home by the Rebels last month, and considering Ole Miss’ dismal record in super regionals, I don’t think the Rebels would have been able to stand in LSU’s way.

As far away from Omaha as the Tigers wound up after Monday’s season-ending loss, that’s as theoretically close as they could have come. That added to the agony of defeat for first-year coach Jay Johnson.

“I wanted to take this team to Omaha so bad I can’t put it into words,” Johnson said. “I know how special that would have been for all we’ve been through. How open they were to a new way of doing things.”

Johnson had a different way of doing things from former longtime LSU coach Paul Mainieri. Not better, necessarily, but different. Players recruited during the Mainieri years had to accept Johnson’s style and mesh with the new players he brought in such as Arizona transfers Jacob Berry, Riley Cooper and Bryce Collins, and other transfers such as Eric Reyzelman.

It wasn’t always pretty. OK, it often wasn’t pretty. But this team had a level of heart and determination that was difficult to extinguish, even for a frankly superior team such as USM playing on its home artificial turf. It’s that quality that cuts through the disappointment for Johnson, for his players and should for LSU baseball fans who are unaccustomed to having to root for underdogs.

“That’s a foundational piece of building a program,” Johnson said. “We didn’t win the regional, but in the two games we did win, that’s how we want to look going forward.

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“We have things to be proud of. I want to win the national championship. That’s why I came to LSU. We didn’t do that, but there are things to be proud of this season, too.”

That’s true, but the ultimate measuring stick for LSU baseball — like a Kentucky in basketball — is getting to the big stage and contending for national titles. Johnson may be a relative newcomer here, but he knows that as well as anyone.

His heart may have been fractured a bit by Monday’s outcome, but his confidence remained unshaken.

“We’ll get there,” Johnson said. “I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

Will LSU have a chance to get there next year? Key players like Berry and Friday night starter Ma’Khail Hilliard will be gone. Possibly guys like Gavin Dugas, who hit the game-tying home run in the eighth Monday, as well, though Johnson made it clear in the postgame news conference that he wants Dugas back.

But most of this team can return, led by a player in center fielder Dylan Crews who could wind up as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 MLB draft. They’ll be augmented by the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class, and a few more players from the transfer portal, especially to shore up the pitching staff.

The Tigers didn’t take a literal step down the road to their beloved Omaha, but figuratively they may have gotten a little closer to going back.

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