So, you would think LSU is the baseball feel-good story of the NCAA super regionals, wouldn’t you?
Oh, the Tigers are definitely a good story. Starting the season ranked No. 1. Rallying from the disarray of their midseason issues and injuries. And now standing two victories away from a trip to the College World Series just a few weeks ago seemed all but impossible.
But starting Saturday afternoon, LSU hosts Florida State, a team trying to get its retiring coach Mike Martin back to the College World Series one more time.
In keeping with this week’s D-Day anniversary theme, to borrow a line from “Saving Private Ryan,” the mission is the man. And that trumps any kind of story the Tigers could be cooking up.
Martin is an easy man to root for. He’s affable and folksy in a way that doesn’t make you resent his overwhelming success — most wins all time (2,023) and best winning percentage (.733) among active NCAA Division I coaches — and is as prone to a colorful anecdote as he is to leading his Seminoles to beating the pants off your ballclub.
Even LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who himself is closing in on 1,500 career wins (1,452), is caught up a bit in Martinmania.
“I think Mike Martin is on the Mount Rushmore of college baseball coaches,” Mainieri said. “Not only is he a fantastic coach, but he’s a wonderful human being. He has impacted an awful lot of lives.
“He’s been one of my heroes.”
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Despite 16 trips to Omaha since 1980, Martin has never won a College World Series title. That easily makes Martin and Florida State not only the sympathetic choice in this super regional, but of all the 16 teams still playing this weekend for those coveted eight tickets to Omaha, Nebraska. His story certainly may have influenced the NCAA baseball selection committee to overlook the fact FSU was a questionable choice as an at-large selection with a 36-21 overall record and No. 50 RPI after the ACC tournament. Admittedly, Florida State was one of the last four teams in.
But that is all conjecture. You can’t deny that the Seminoles made the most of their big break, bashing their way to the Athens (Georgia) regional title with three straight double-digit victories, outscoring the opposition by a combined 35-11. That included a pair of 12-3 and 10-1 wins over Georgia, the No. 4 national seed.
There are two rooting groups in the Tigers’ corner: LSU fans, of course, and every bar and restaurant owner in Omaha. Tiger baseball fans are legendary for coming in droves to the CWS, spending many days there and leaving many dollars behind. Heck, some of them go to Omaha every year anyway, whether LSU is playing there or not.
It’s too bad the Tigers no longer have a black hat in their wardrobe, because to be playing in the College World Series next week LSU is going to have to live with being the villains of this piece. Mainieri had a sense of this as well when he spoke to reporters earlier this week.
Landon Marceaux lost confidence for much of his freshman season and wondered if he belonged at LSU. As the Tigers prepare for Florida State in the super regional this weekend, Marceaux has turned into the pitcher he always wanted to be.
“Our goal is to go out there and do the best we can this weekend and try to find a way to win two games,” he said, “not worry about who’s in the other dugout.”
Sentimentality aside, it will hardly be an easy task for the Tigers. LSU played reasonably well in its regional, though surrendering big leads in both victories over Southern Mississippi before fighting back to win. The Tigers have home-field advantage and the history on their side of having won eight of nine super regionals they’ve hosted since 2000, while FSU is 0-5 on the road in these situations.
But history and even home field often don’t count for as much in these situations as who is hotter. Not only do Florida State and Martin tug at the heartstrings, but they also are the smart pick according to SI.com and NCAA.com. Both predicted the Seminoles to advance because of the way they played in Athens. It’s tournament ball, and often being hotter counts for more than anything.
LSU has to overcome all that and write its own feel-good story. That of a team overcoming adversity and living up to its staggering expectations and history. If they can do that, maybe the Tigers will end up being the team folks are pulling for in Omaha. A rooting section that includes Martin, if LSU can do its job and send him into retirement.