BATON ROUGE - LSU coach Paul Mainieri was only answering a question. He did not bring it up, and at first he sounded like he did not want to answer it.
"I don't like to compare teams too much because each team has unique characteristics," he said after winning the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional Sunday night with a 5-0 victory over Rice. But then he went on in vivid detail to compare his 2017 Tigers to his 2009 team that won the college baseball national championship.
The current Tigers (46-17) have won 14 straight games and 19 of their last 21 along with the Southeastern Conference West, SEC overall and SEC Tournament titles. They will host the winner of the rain delayed NCAA Regional in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, this weekend at Alex Box Stadium. Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State were deciding the Hattiesburg Regional Monday night. The eight Super Regional winners advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, from June 17-28.
The 2009 Tigers finished 20-10 in the league and also won all available SEC titles and entered their home Super Regional with a similar record to now - 49-16, having won eight straight and 15 of their last 18 at this point of the season. They also swept their home NCAA Regional with only a few issues like this year, beating Southern, 10-2, after a scare, Baylor 3-2 in 10 innings and Minnesota, 10-3, with no problem.
LSU swept its NCAA Regional over the weekend, beating Texas Southern, 15-7, after a scare, Southeastern Louisiana in a close one for awhile, 11-6, and Rice, 5-0, with no problem.
"If you look at that team, we had a first round draft choice in Anthony Ranaudo," Mainieri went on.
Ranaudo, a 6-foot-7 sophomore right-hander, was the ace in 2009 before becoming a compensation pick between the first and second rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft in 2010. He finished 12-3 with a 3.04 ERA in '09 with 159 strikeouts and 50 walks in 124 and a third innings. Ranaudo started three games in Omaha and won his last two, including the 11-4 win over Texas in the national championship game.
If LSU reaches Omaha this year, junior right-hander Alex Lange, an expected first round pick in the MLB Draft next Monday, will likely pitch the opener and - if LSU advances - the championship game. He is 9-5 on the season with a 2.87 ERA with 124 strikeouts and 34 walks in 103 and a third innings so far.
LSU's No. 2 starter is senior left-hander Jared Poche, who is not expected to go high in the draft next week, but he is one win away from tying the LSU career record of 38 wins and leads the team in wins this season at 10-3 with a 3.13 ERA. In 2009, LSU's No. 2 starter was senior right-hander Louis Coleman, who was not a projected high round pick either, but he led the team in wins that season at 14-2 with a 2.93 ERA and finished with 29 career wins. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft.
The 2009 team did not have a freshman No. 3 starter quite as accomplished as Eric Walker, who shut out Rice through eight innings Sunday to go to 8-1 on the season with a 3.46 ERA. But it did have steady sophomore right-hander Austin Ross of Captain Shreve High in Shreveport who finished 6-8 with a 5.18 ERA.
"We knew we had three really good starting pitchers," Mainieri said of the 2009 team, but he could have been talking about this season.
"Alex Lange's probably going to be a first round draft choice. Jared Poche is hopefully going to be the winningest pitcher in the school's history," Mainieri said. "And we've got another guy (Walker) who's going to make his mark on the LSU program. He already has, but he's going to continue to do big things."
In 2009, freshman right-handed closer Matty Ott finished 4-2 with a 2.68 ERA and with a school record 16 saves. In 2016, senior right-handed closer Hunter Newman is 1-1 with a 1.11 ERA and 10 saves. Other strong relievers in 2009 were junior right-hander Paul Bertuccini (2-0, 3.86 ERA), senior right-hander Nolan Cain (5-0, 4.01 ERA), who is now an assistant coach at LSU, and late addition Chad Jones, a sophomore left-hander who was 0-0 with a 2.70 ERA and struck out seven in six and two-thirds critical innings.
LSU has several other quality relievers this season as well, particularly freshman right-hander Zack Hess (6-1, 2.92 ERA, 1 save), who has 71 strikeouts in 52 innings and could also start as he is ticketed for the weekend rotation next season. There is also sophomore right-hander Caleb Gilbert (5-1, 2.74 ERA, 3 saves) and a left-handed option in freshman Nick Bush (1-1, 3.54 ERA).
"I think we've got enough bullpen down there to be able to get the job done, particularly when the starters pitch as deep into the game as they have been," Mainieri said.
There is also an uncanny similarity in center field.
Zach Watson, a tremendous athlete with speed, was held out for nearly a month before becoming a regular starter this season much like 2009 sensation Mikie Mahtook, a quarterback at St. Thomas More High in Lafayette. Mainieri predicted each would have a major impact before the season, but skillfully avoided throwing them in there during the opening weeks. Mahtook hit .316 with seven home runs, 38 RBIs, eight doubles, three triples and nine stolen bases in 49 starts in '09. Watson is hitting .316 with eight home runs, 34 RBIs, eight doubles, three triples and nine stolen bases in 48 starts.
Where LSU now has slugging junior outfielder Greg Deichmann (.322, 19 homers, 69 RBIs), the 2009 team had slugging junior outfielder Ryan Schimpf (.336, 22 homers, 70 RBIs). The current Tigers have a promising freshman third baseman in Josh Smith (.290, 15 doubles, 4 homers, 43 RBIs), while the 2009 team had freshman third baseman Tyler Hanover .321, 9 doubles, 5 homers, 47 RBIs).
"I see a lot of similarities, but that '09 team, they got it done down the stretch," Mainieri said. "We were 10-1 in NCAA games."
LSU finished the 2009 NCAA postseason at 10-1, going 9-0 through the NCAA Regional, Super Regional and first four games of the CWS before a 5-1 loss to Texas in the second game of the best-of-three national championship series.
"We're off to a good start this year at 3-0," Mainieri said. "But we've got a long way to go before we can talk about those two teams in the same sentence."
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