BATON ROUGE – The baseball program has been LSU’s most consistent source of athletic pride on a national level for three decades.
Football has not. It had eight losing seasons from 1989 through 1999 as the baseball team won four national championships. Women’s Gymnastics, which could win its first national championship in two weeks, obviously is now one of LSU's best programs and has been for several years, but not for as long as LSU Baseball.
As far as results, LSU Baseball is THE pride of LSU. People are obviously more into football, which is a much larger part of the culture. But LSU Baseball has consistently for three decades answered potential and higher rankings much better and has been far more of a player in the Southeastern Conference.
The football program may improve under new coach Ed Orgeron, but the Tigers have not been a national player through the end of a season since 2011, which ended the greatest run in LSU football history as the Tigers played in three national championship games in nine years, winning two, and won three SEC titles with a runner-up finish in the SEC title game. Beginning in 2013, though, the football Tigers have finished third or worse in the West every year with three minor bowls in that span along with four straight seasons of finishing ranked lower than when the season began.
The LSU baseball team has done little in Omaha, Nebraska, at the College World Series since winning it all in 2009 under Coach Paul Mainieri, but it did make it there twice in 2013 and ’15, which is the equivalent of reaching a BCS type bowl. The football team has not been close to a final eight finish like the CWS since 2012. The baseball Tigers have also remained a major player in the SEC with regular season championships in 2009, 2012 and ’15 and SEC Tournament titles in 2008, ’09, ’10, ’13, and ’14 along with Super Regional finishes in 2012, ’14 and ’16. Unlike the football team, the baseball team has finished as low as third in the West just once beginning in 2012. And the baseball Tigers usually finish ranked about where they started. They may not finish completely, but they tend to answer potential better than the football team.
Mainieri should have advanced out of two of those three Super Regionals and done better in Omaha than 1-4 over the last two trips, but he’s always right there. He’s always close. Since 2008, he has had just three finishes worse than a Super Regional. And he's not looking for a pitcher every year as the football team seems to be on a forever search for a quarterback. And this year he actually has a third weekend starter one can count on.
Comparing his record to former football coach Les Miles’ gradual slide from 2012 on is inaccurate, because Mainieri has been far better in the league and in the postseason even with the 1-4 in Omaha.
LSU baseball fans should realize this, and most – hopefully – do. Most should also realize that Mainieri handled the pitching virtually exactly as he should have on Saturday in the 4-3 loss to Texas A&M that lost the three-game series two games to one.
Starter Eric Walker pitched longer than he had all season. It was time to take him out after the seventh. A recovering Hunter Newman – fresh off nearly three weeks out with a back injury - was the right choice for the eighth to bridge Walker to closer Caleb Gilbert, who had earned two saves in his previous two outings at Florida and against Georgia and came in with a 1.86 ERA. He struck out Logan Foster looking for the second out with a runner on second and leading 3-0 in the ninth Saturday.
When Gilbert allowed a RBI single to Hunter Coleman for the second hit of the inning to get the Aggies within 3-1, maybe Mainieri should have hooked him. But, probably not, because of the way Gilbert had pitched in his last few outings.
It’s a cliché, but clichés are often accurate. That’s baseball.
LSU (19-10, 5-4 SEC) has lost five of its last seven games and four of its last six SEC games, but it is still right there in the SEC West just two games off pace of first place Arkansas (22-6, 7-2 SEC), which is where it plays this weekend.
LSU has its best starting weekend pitching staff in years in Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Eric Walker, a solid mid-week starter in Zack Hess, an expert closer on the mend in Newman and a blossoming closer in Gilbert along with some other budding arms like Matthew Beck and Todd Peterson.
The Tigers have too much good pitching to fall out of contention in the SEC or for the NCAA postseason home sites regardless of how weak their hitting can be – four hits apiece in the two losses to A&M over the weekend. The slump will dissipate sooner or later.
The hitting will come around, and the pitching will stay around. It’s a long season.
More of you LSU baseball fans should know that and know better.
LSU RECORD: 19-10 overall, 5-4 in the SEC for fourth in the West.
LATEST RANKINGS: No. 8 in USA Today, 4 last week; No. 13 in Division I Baseball, 6 last week; No. 15 in Baseball America, 9 last week.
RPI: No. 41, 30 last week.
NEXT UP: Grambling, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Alex Box Stadium.
THIS WEEKEND: At No. 20 Arkansas (22-6, 7-2 SEC) Friday, 6:30 p.m., Saturday, 6 p.m. and Sunday, 1 p.m.