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June 20, 2013

Excellent season comes up a little short

For the second straight year, there is a feeling of emptiness surrounding the end of the LSU baseball season.

After not playing host to a postseason game for two consecutive years, the Tigers opened the 2012 campaign with the goal of stopping that mini-slide. LSU won the Southeastern Conference championship and earned a national seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Tigers swept through the regional and defeated Stony Brook in the first game of the super-regional series. However, LSU dropped the next two games and failed to reach the College World Series. Many Tigers fans forgot about the SEC title and the playing of postseason games at The Box again.

After not appearing in the College World Series for three straight years, LSU began the 2013 season intent on returning to Omaha. The Tigers won a school-record 23 SEC games, but finished second to Vanderbilt. LSU won a school-record 48 regular-season games.

Then, the Tigers defeated Vanderbilt in the championship game of the NCAA tournament. Being a national seed once again, LSU capitalized this time and won five straight postseason games at The Box. So, the Tigers earned their first trip to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

Back in the winter, much of the talk surrounding the LSU baseball program was the urgency of getting back to the College World Series. No one was mentioning winning a national title. But, a 57-9 record can certainly alter fans' expectations.

Therefore, there is a lot of disappointment for Tigers baseball supporters following a one-run loss to UCLA and a two-run loss to North Carolina. Instead of being one of the last two teams in Omaha, LSU was one of the first two teams to go home without a victory.

Everyone knows that there was a lack of timely hitting - 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position - in the two games at the CWS. Clutch hitting is a must in tight, low-scoring games.

The Tigers enjoyed a great season - a school-record tying 57 victories. LSU won four championships - SEC West, SEC tournament, Baton Rouge regional and Baton Rouge super-regional. But, missing were the two most relevant crowns - SEC and, of course, CWS.

Prior to the season, coach Paul Mainieri mentioned three players whose performances would determine how good a year LSU would enjoy - pitcher Ryan Eades, second baseman JaCoby Jones and catcher Ty Ross.

That trio of juniors had good years, but far from outstanding ones. In the previous two years, Eades had a 9-4 record with a 4.14 ERA. This season, Eades posted an 8-1 mark with a 2.79 ERA. However, there was a lack of confidence in Eades as evidenced by his being passed over for a start in Omaha.

Jones, who got off to a horrible start at the plate, got his batting average up to .294. His batting average after his first two seasons was .291. Jones had averaged four homers and 30 RBIs in his freshman and sophomore campaigns. He totaled six homers and 31 RBIs this year. So, there was no increase for Jones.

Ross' batting average was much lower in 2013 than his career mark entering the year. Ross batted .217. He had a .261 mark for his first two seasons. His run production was similar. Ross had averaged two homers and 31 RBIs the past two years. He finished 2013 with three homers and 32 RBIs.

So, LSU won 57 games with none of those three juniors having what would be called a career year. Moreover, Raph Rhymes had his poorest batting average in his three years at .331. Rhymes started this season with a .397 career batting average.

Rhymes' run production didn't take a dip. In the two previous seasons, Rhymes averaged four homers and 48 runs batted in. In 2013, he had four homers and 46 runs batted in.

The pick-up on offense came from Mason Katz and the five newcomers to the lineup. Katz had his best campaign with a .370 average, 16 homers and 70 RBIs. Alex Bregman, Sean McMullen, Mark Laird, Christian Ibarra and Andrew Stevenson batted a combined .312 with 15 homers and 153 RBIs.

Then, there was the pitching of Aaron Nola and Chris Cotton. Nola won 12 games, while Cotton won four games and registered 16 saves. Of the Tigers' 57 victories, there were just 15 in which neither Nola nor Cotton took the mound.

So, what is the status of the LSU baseball program as the 2013 college season winds down? Many fans will point out that the Tigers won five national titles in ten years from 1991-2000. But, the change in the format in 1999, with the advent of the super-regional round, has changed the landscape.

LSU has won two national titles in the past 15 years. No other school has won more. Only Oregon State has a chance to pick up a third national crown in this stretch in the next few days. People need to understand that college baseball is different.

Where does LSU stand in the SEC over the past five years? No school has more than the Tigers' two SEC regular-season titles and three SEC tournament titles. When it comes to the postseason, only South Carolina and Florida have had more success - by a small amount.

The SEC is a reflection of the entire country. One team is no longer going to be dominant. Over the past five years, LSU is one of five schools who are at the top of SEC baseball. The other four are South Carolina, Florida, Arkansas and Vanderbilt.

The parallel between Kentucky basketball and LSU baseball has been made many times. Wildcats basketball fans judge the season's success by Final Four trips and national titles. The same exists for Tigers baseball fans. It's all about CWS appearances and national crowns. To them, nothing else matters.

Here is a breakdown of the top five SEC baseball programs over the past five years.

Winning percentage in SEC games

South Carolina -- .642 (95-53)
Florida -- .633 (95-55)
Vanderbilt -- .630 (92-54)
LSU -- .593 (89-61)
Arkansas -- .547 (81-67)

SEC regular-season championships
Florida - 2
LSU - 2
Vanderbilt - 2
South Carolina - 1

SEC tournament championships
LSU - 3
Florida - 1

NCAA regional appearances
Arkansas - 5
Florida - 5
South Carolina - 5
Vanderbilt - 5
LSU - 4

NCAA super-regional appearances
Florida - 4
South Carolina - 4
Arkansas - 3
LSU - 3
Vanderbilt - 3

College World Series appearances
Florida - 3
South Carolina - 3
Arkansas - 2
LSU - 2
Vanderbilt - 1

College World Series championships
South Carolina - 2
LSU - 1

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