Looks like LSU should have fired Paul Mainieri when it had the chance.
Only kidding, of course. Mainieri’s job was never in jeopardy. It never should have been in jeopardy, no matter how many noisy malcontents got on social media, clamoring for him to go the way of Les Miles and Johnny Jones.
Fortunately, for all concerned, a 20-20 view of LSU’s season prevailed.
It took months of struggling, but it is indeed a long season. Here the Tigers were this weekend, winning a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship by reaching the 21-win plateau in SEC wins and the 21-win plateau against the RPI top 50 (most in the nation).
They’re all significant milestones in LSU’s critical quest to be an NCAA tournament top eight national seed for the sixth straight year.
Mainieri’s tenure has been noted for some remarkable in-season reversals of fortune. There was the 2008 team, which started 23-16 and then erupted, going on a 24-game unbeaten streak that helped those Tigers surge all the way to the College World Series.
There was last year’s team, which had been hammered by graduation and the draft and started 28-16, then rally-possumed its way to a No. 8 national seed by winning 11 of its last 12 entering the NCAA tournament.
This LSU baseball team had the experience and talent to do great deeds, but its will or ability to execute for the longest time seemed lacking. The offense seemed to seize up at all the critical times after hitting coach Andy Cannizaro gave Mainieri a November surprise, leaving abruptly to become the head coach at Mississippi State. The pitching, especially the bullpen, seemed even more suspect.
It all seemed to be coming apart in late April. LSU looked lost after dropping two of three at Kentucky and another game at Tulane — one that illustrated the Tigers’ season of frustration against in-state midweek opponents.
At that point, LSU was 27-15. By this program's high standards, that's scuffling — especially for a team that started in the preseason top five.
Then things began to change. LSU — a team that looked like it expected to win because of the name stitched on its hats — began to take on a more determined demeanor.
Senior shortstop Kramer Robertson, who once said getting to Omaha, Nebraska, was an obsession for him, began to play obsessed, as Mainieri called it, leading by example.
Robertson’s rules of order took hold. There was still a frustrating midweek loss to South Alabama that again had social media in a frenzy (South Alabama’s RPI as of Saturday night: 40), but the Tigers started beating SEC teams in a major way.
LSU swept lowly Alabama on the road, took two of three from slumping South Carolina and swept longtime SEC West leader Auburn. Then in another road showdown, the Tigers swept Mississippi State and claimed the SEC West even before Saturday’s series finale, earning a share of the conference crown (it is LSU's 17th SEC championship, a league high).
“I'm sure there aren't too many people who predicted a month ago that we would be the SEC Western Division champions,” Maineri said Friday night. “We're finishing strong. I told everyone that with 11 games left in the season we were going to finish strong. I think we are.”
SEC titles are impressive jewels, but for the majority of the LSU faithful (and the Tigers themselves, no doubt), they are mere mileposts on the way to Omaha.
Certainly LSU has done enough with its May renaissance to open June with another NCAA regional at home, in Alex Box Stadium.
But have the Tigers done enough to be a national seed yet again?
While LSU may not be a lock in that category, it’s at least on the cusp. Perhaps all the Tigers need to do in this week’s SEC tournament is make sure they don’t stumble home with an 0-2 mark staining their record.
LSU has advanced to the CWS on the road before, but it’s been a very, very long time. Way back in 1989, to be precise, when the Tigers won at Texas A&M. That was under the old NCAA format.
Under the regional/super regional setup, LSU hasn’t always won when hosting. But they've never made it to Omaha as the road team in a super regional.
A month ago, I wouldn’t have given you much for the Tigers’ chances. But right now, if you're some other team, you don't want to have to go through Alex Box.
May was something for LSU, maddening and marvelous. June could be even more special.