By Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
BATON ROUGE – Sean McMullen was on antibiotics for a ruptured salivary duct in his mouth after visiting a doctor Sunday morning. He had hit only one home run since April 12 and was batting in the .280s.
“I was a little concerned he might not get to play,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said later.
But McMullen was also chewing on adrenaline and nostalgia. And with two outs and a runner on in the top of the eighth, McMullen’s mouth never felt so good.
The senior left-handed designated hitter from New Orleans bit down hard on a full count breaking ball from Florida reliever Ryan Harris and spit it over the right field wall for a 2-0 win over the top seeded Gators for the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game victory in Hoover, Ala.
Without the win over RPI leading Florida, LSU (44-14-1) would not be a top eight national seed now with the right to host a best-of-three Super Regional June 6-9 should it advance out of the NCAA Regional round that begins Friday at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers host Southeastern Louisiana (37-23) at 2 p.m. Friday and are five wins from the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“Oh, without a doubt, it was the greatest moment of my career,” McMullen said Monday. “I mean that was just a very special moment. It was just very surreal.”
McMullen had a senior moment as he stepped to the plate in the eighth at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
“I was thinking this was my last game at this field,” he said. “I wasn’t actually feeling any pressure at all. I was just looking around, seeing what I’m a part of with all the fans that came up to the game. It is such a beautiful facility. I just wanted to soak it in. I grew up dreaming of playing for the LSU Tigers.”
The game was televised nationally by ESPN2, and McMullen realized that impact through Sunday night and into Monday morning.
“I’ve gotten so much love and support from my family and friends because I’m a New Orleans boy, and everyone loves the Tigers there,” he said. “It was just a really special moment. People have reached out to me that I haven’t even talked to in about seven years from across the country because it was on national TV. It was just very, very special. And I just have to thank God for that because I’m just very blessed.”
McMullen is seventh on the LSU team in batting average at .286 entering the NCAA Regional weekend. He is tied with Kade Scivicque and Alex Bregman for the team lead with six home runs and is tied for second in RBIs with Tyler Moore at 34. McMullen made the All-SEC Tournament team after going 5-for-12 with four RBIs in LSU’s four wins in four games.
The home run and its aftermath so far have capped an all-encompassing senior year. McMullen graduated this month with a 3.71 grade point average in kinesiology and made the SEC Academic Honor Roll. He was also recently named the Tiger Athletic Foundation Male Scholar Athlete of the Year and has been nominated for the SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year.
On Monday, McMullen received the Wally Pontiff Jr. Scholar Athlete Award. Pontiff, also from New Orleans, was an All-SEC third baseman for the Tigers when they won the national championship in 2000. After his junior season in 2002, Pontiff died in his sleep at home of a heart abnormality.
“This time of your life is the greatest time of your life,” Wally Pontiff Sr. said when presenting the award. “You may go play Major League Baseball, but this is the best time of your life.”
McMullen is relishing the moments.
“I’m very honored to receive this,” he said to Pontiff and his teammates and coaches. “I grew up watching Wally. I remember seeing the ‘No. 31 Always,’ bumper stickers everywhere. I’m speechless.”
There may be more to come. Mainieri sees a more focused and mentally free McMullen, who transferred to LSU two years ago from Delgado Community College in New Orleans.
“Sean had spurts of greatness during the first three quarters of the year,” Mainieri said. “I predicted he would be an All-American or All-SEC player. He didn’t have that kind of season. At times, he was really great, but he also had 1-for-17 weeks as well. His consistency just wasn’t great.”
This was partly because of McMullen’s academic load and his desire to make the highest of grades.
“Sean is a very serious student, and he had a particulary difficult academic schedule this spring,” Mainieri said. “He came to me many times and asked if he could get out of practice - not to take an exam - but to prepare for an exam satisfactorily, and I let him. That weighed on him.”
School has been out for weeks now.
“There’s no question he was having to split his mental capacities,” Mainieri said. “Once school ended, he’s relaxed a bit. He just seems to be more focused on baseball, and the best seems to be coming out of him now.”