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June 10, 2013

Tigers can exhale

The question was answered quite honestly by LSU coach Paul Mainieri after his team completed a two-game sweep of Oklahoma in the super-regionals with an 11-1 victory Saturday night.

Mainieri was asked if it was a relief that his Tigers were heading back to the College World Series in Omaha. It didn't take long for the seventh-year LSU coach to say 'yes.' No truer word had ever been spoken.

Mainieri spent much of his career as the head coach at Notre Dame. So, he watched the pressure-cooker under which Fighting Irish football coaches work. But, Mainieri stepped into a similar environment when he was hired as Smoke Laval's replacement in June of 2006.

Skip Bertman had built a college baseball dynasty both on and off the field. Under Bertman, the Tigers won five national championships in a ten-year span from 1991 through 2000. No school sold more baseball tickets than LSU. A $40 million baseball stadium was on the way.

Laval didn't do poorly during his stint with the Tigers. Under Laval, LSU made four NCAA tournament appearances in five years. Twice, the Tigers made trips to the College World Series. There was a Southeastern Conference title.

However, there were no College World Series victories, much less national championships, under Laval. The fan base was not showing up in great numbers after LSU failed to win a regional at The Box in 2005. When the Tigers missed the NCAA tournament a year later, Laval was gone.

Into the fire stepped Mainieri, who endured an expected postseason-less first year at LSU. However, the personable Mainieri guided the Tigers to College World Series appearances in 2008 and 2009. LSU won the national title in 2009.

But, then the expectations of Tigers baseball began to surface. LSU didn't host a regional in 2010. The Tigers were sent to UCLA and finished third in the four-team regional. LSU was home for both the SEC and NCAA tournaments in 2011. Mainieri realized that such results were unacceptable for Tigers fans.

LSU rebounded to win the SEC title in 2012, but the gloss on the season was lost when Stony Brook came to The Box and won the super-regional. The Tigers were on the verge of failing to reach Omaha for four straight years for the first time since 1982-85.

Even though LSU had a 55-9 record heading into its super-regional series against Oklahoma, everyone in the baseball program understood nothing had been accomplished. Aaron Nola got the Tigers off to a good start by outdueling Jonathan Gray, the No. 3 pick in the draft, 2-0 in the super-regional opener.

The Sooners had no chance in the second game of the series. Oklahoma hung around, but no one had the feeling that LSU was in any trouble after taking a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning. The Tigers celebrated after the final out, but one could sense a weight had been lifted off people's shoulders.

Mainieri acknowledged, as he has on many occasions, that reaching the CWS is the expected norm for LSU. Mason Katz, Alex Edward and Chris Cotton avoided being the first four-year Tigers players not to play in Omaha since Clay Parker in the 1980s.

Both Katz and Raph Rhymes, a senior who in the program for three years, admitted reaching Omaha is all that matters for LSU. Remember that the area at The Box in which the regional and super-regional press conferences were held is the 'Omaha Room.'

So now, the Tigers can take a huge breath and enjoy what they have accomplished. LSU has tied the school record for victories in a season with 57. Of course, Mainieri said Saturday night that they are shooting for five more wins - which would give them a national title if there were no losses.

During the two game-sweep of Oklahoma, the Tigers played their typical baseball. The pitching was excellent. The Sooners had seven hits (a .127 team batting average) and scored one run. Four Tigers hurlers - Ryan Eades, Will LaMarche, Nick Rumbelow and Cotton - held Oklahoma to five hits Saturday.

LSU's defense was "suffocating," according to Mainieri. The Tigers made one error - a bad throw by catcher Ty Ross on an attempted steal - in 70 chances. Just about every LSU position player made a top defensive play in the two games.

The Tigers did very little against Gray, but JaCoby Jones and Tyler Moore delivered extra-base hits to score the only run Nola needed in the eighth inning. As has been the case all year, there are always two or three hitters who have a big series.

Against Oklahoma, Sean McMullen, Katz and Christian Ibarra were hitless. But, Mark Laird and Jones each had five hits. Rhymes had three hits, while Ross drove in three runs. The depth of the LSU lineup is impressive.

Jones, undoubtedly the most talented player on this LSU team, had his best weekend. After getting drafted in the third round by the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday afternoon, Jones was obviously a relaxed player. Jones let his ability take over.

Now, the entire team has the opportunity to play without pressure sitting on its collective shoulders in Omaha. The Tigers are back where their supporters expect them. Now, they can take dead aim on another national championship. No one in the field has a better chance of winning it all.



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