By Glenn Guilbeau / GANNETT LOUISIANA
BATON ROUGE – Perhaps the only element that can stop the LSU baseball program now is rain.
And there is a 60 percent chance of that happening throughout Friday when the No. 8 national seed Tigers (44-14-1) open their 27th NCAA postseason at 2 p.m. against No. 4 regional seed Southeastern Louisiana (37-23) at Alex Box Stadium in NCAA Baton Rouge Regional. ESPN3 will televise the four-team, double-elimination tournament.
“We’re used to rain,” shortstop Alex Bregman said. “We’ll deal with it.”
Since rain last stopped LSU’s parade on the weekend of May 9-11 with a postponement and a cancelation involving two games against Alabama at the Box, LSU is 8-0. And that’s a Super 8. The Tigers have won their last eight by a combined count of 87-8 on 110 hits with a .372 batting average and a 1.09 ERA with three shutouts. They have hit 13 of their season total of 38 home runs (34 percent) during that figure eight.
Four of those games were against lesser competition, such as Northwestern State and Auburn, but the last four came in the tournament of the Southeastern Conference, which ranks No. 1 in RPI (ratings percentage index). LSU knocked off Vanderbilt and its No. 6 RPI by the 10-run rule and beat No. 1 RPI Florida, 2-0, in the title game for its fifth SEC Tournament championship since 2008. Five players hit six home runs in the four tournament games.
“This weekend was a tell-tale sign about our team’s resilience,” Bregman said after the Tigers’ final flourish before embarking on the road to Omaha, Neb., site of the College World Series, June 14-25. “And we’re just getting started.”
A win by LSU, which is 21-0 in home NCAA Regional openers since 1986, would advance it to a 7 p.m. game on Saturday against the winner of Friday’s 7 p.m. game between No. 2 regional seed Houston (44-15) and Bryant (42-14). A victory there, and the Tigers would have two games on Sunday and Monday to win one to reach and host the Super Regional round next weekend here. Should rain postpone games, the tournament could stretch into Tuesday, Wednesday and beyond.
“We’re so hot right now and playing great in every area of the game,” said Bregman, who slumped to .277 midway in the SEC season but has been back over .300 for the first time since March. “This is the time of the year that you bring everything together.”
It is Coach Paul Mainieri’s favorite time of year.
“It never gets old,” said the eight-year LSU coach, who is hosting his ninth NCAA postseason tournament at LSU – the fifth NCAA Regional now and four Super Regionals so far. “I just love the idea of a team going to bed at night and knowing that when they wake up they will be playing for a championship. Not many athletes get to experience something like that.”
That could be on Sunday at the earliest.
“You can get nervous when you experience it for the first time,” Mainieri said.
The Tigers advanced to Omaha out of the Box last season for the third time since 2008 under Mainieri and 14th time overall from here since 1986 with 12 of those by former LSU coach Skip Bertman and two by his successor, Smoke Laval, in 2003 and ‘04. LSU is the nation’s winningest team in the postseason at 132-51 for 72 percent, including an 83-19 mark in regional games for 81 percent.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve played well in tournaments,” Mainieri said. “It has become a tradition at LSU for our players to rise to the occasion in the biggest games of the year.”
Few LSU teams have closed as fast and furiously as have these Tigers, who have won by an average of nearly 10 runs a game since May 13. LSU now has five .300 hitters with one at .299 and is hitting .286 as a team. Eight games ago, there were two .300 hitters with the third leading hitter at .290 and the team average at .271.
“It’s a process,” Mainieri said. “There is nothing magical. Sometimes it takes time to develop.”
LSU was better at this time last year with the school’s best record ever at 52-9 entering the road to Omaha. That moved to 57-9, but LSU went 0-2 in Omaha.
“You can’t think about Omaha yet,” said LSU designated hitter Sean McMullen, whose two-run home run beat Florida Sunday. “It’s been a very long season to get to where we are now. We’re close, but everybody’s fighting for their lives again now. That’s how we have to look at it.”
STARTING PITCHERS: Mainieri pulled a surprise on Thursday by deciding to start freshman left-hander Jared Poche (9-3, 2.21 ERA) against Southeastern Louisiana junior right-hander Andro Cutura (10-2, 1.72 ERA) in Friday’s 2 p.m. NCAA Regional opener.
Mainieri had been considering starting ace junior right-hander Aaron Nola (10-1, 1.49 ERA) Friday and throwing Poche in a possible winners’ bracket game against Houston on Saturday night because of Houston’s plethora of left-handed hitters.
“They have seven left-handed hitters, so that would be good for Poche,” Mainieri said. “But I slapped myself and said, ‘We might not even play Houston. We may play Bryant.’ There are so many variables.”
A key variable in Mainieri’s decision was the stronger chance of rain for Friday than for Saturday. He did not want to start Nola on Friday and risk losing him after only a few innings to a rain delay.
“The weather is supposed to improve as the weekend goes on,” Mainieri said. “So there is less of a chance of Nola being interrupted on Saturday.”