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June 4, 2013

Different path to same result

For the 12th time since the current NCAA baseball tournament format was adopted in 1999, LSU participated in a four-team regional.

All but one of those 12 regionals were held in Baton Rouge at either the old or new Alex Box Stadium. The result of the regional which took place at the new Box this past weekend was what everyone considers to be normal - the Tigers were the last team standing.

For the tenth time, LSU came out as the regional champion. For the seventh time, the Tigers swept to the regional title in the minimum three games.

However, the script for the 2013 regional crown was obviously different.

First, there were personnel issues. Starting rightfielder Mark Laird was unavailable for the first two games because of an ankle injury. Designated hitter Sean McMullen was lost for the rest of the tourney with a hamstring injury in the middle of LSU's second game.

Backup outfielder Chris Sciambra was not available Sunday due to illness. Starting shortstop Alex Bregman and leftfielder Raph Rhymes were forced to depart the first game following an outfield collision. There were questions as to whether either would be able to return to action.

Finally, Cody Glenn - LSU's No. 2/No.3 starting pitcher - was suspended less than 24 hours before the tournament began for a violation of team rules.

The action on the field was just as strange.

Ryan Eades, a potential first-round pick in this week's major league draft, couldn't get out of the third inning against Jackson State. Third baseman Christian Ibarra and Bregman combined for three first-inning errors against Sam Houston on Saturday.

Due to the poor defense, ace pitcher Aaron Nola was roughed up for five first-inning runs against the Bearkats. Nola, who hadn't allowed more than four runs in a game all year, threw 42 first-inning pitches. At least, Nola established a return to normalcy by then tossing six shutout innings.

But, LSU still did enough to knock off three mid-major opponents - Jackson State, Sam Houston and Louisiana-Lafayette - by a combined score of 24-13. It wasn't textbook baseball, but the Tigers did accomplish the primary goal each day - win the game.

As has been the case all year, there has been someone, maybe not the expected one, step up and deliver the crucial hit, pitch or play. The biggest surprises this week were the winning pitchers in the first and third games.

Kurt McCune took over for Eades with one out in the third inning against Jackson State and threw 4.2 scoreless innings. During that time, McCune's teammates turned an early deficit into a 10-2 lead. McCune gave up four hits and struck out five batters.

In the championship round Sunday, coach Paul Mainieri decided upon Brent Bonvillain to replace the suspended Glenn. All Bonvillain did was give up one unearned run and three hits in 5.1 innings - his longest outing in two seasons at LSU.

The Tigers needed such a performance from Bonvillain as they didn't have a big offensive inning until the sixth. RBI hits by Bregman and Rhymes enabled the Tigers to take a 4-0 lead over UL-Lafayette. Three innings later, LSU was getting ready for a super-regional matchup against Oklahoma.

It wasn't as if nothing went according to plan. The Tigers' big three hitters - Bregman, Mason Katz and Rhymes - batted a combined .469 (15-for-32) with nine runs batted in. Those three players had less-than-stellar combined .237 batting average with one RBI in the SEC tournament.

Keep in mind that both Bregman, the tournament Most Outstanding Player, and Rhymes were red hot at the plate after their outfield collision. In the last two games, Bregman and Rhymes had six and five hits, respectively. Both players had three hits in the 5-1 victory against the Ragin' Cajuns.

LSU needed the offensive production from the guys in the heart of its lineup. McMullen had five hits before injuring his hamstring. No other Tigers player had more than two hits in the tournament. In fact, the other LSU players were a combined 12-for-70 (.171).

The Tigers got only 2.1 innings from Eades and Glenn, but still were dominant on the mound. Nola gave up no earned runs in seven innings. McCune and Bonvillain allowed one earned run in a total of ten innings.

The top three relievers - Chris Cotton, Joey Bourgeois and Nick Rumbelow - allowed three base runners in a total of 6.2 innings. In the tournament-clinching victory, Rumbelow and Cotton set down 11 consecutive batters - five by strikeouts.

But, it makes no matter who does the job for this LSU team. Someone always steps up and takes care of business. That's the main reason the Tigers are 55-9. No LSU team has entered the super-regional with as many as 50 victories. The 2009 squad had 49 victories after winning the regional.

Now, the Tigers are at a familiar spot - two super-regional home victories away from a berth in the College World Series. UCLA, Baylor, Texas A&M, Cal Irvine and Rice have been beaten in Baton Rouge super-regional series.

However, LSU is not undefeated in super-regional series at The Box. Everyone recalls what occurred last June when fourth-seeded Stony Brook won the series two games to one. The Sooners, with potential No. 1 draft choice Jonathan Gray leading the pitching staff, will provide quite a challenge.

Mainieri has been saying all year that he wanted to be in the same position as his 2012 team. He stressed that his squad simply had to play better this time. The Tigers will get that opportunity this weekend.


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