Rabalais: Omaha can turn afterthoughts into stars

By Scott Rabalais

Advocate sportswriter

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU pitcher Chad Jones signs newspapers and baseballs after a fan celebration in Alex Box Stadium to honor the 2009 baseball national champion team on June 25, 2009. Mary Bourgeois, center, has her copy of The Advocate front page signed, and Chandler Denison, 13, left, has his baseball signed.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU pitcher Chad Jones signs newspapers and baseballs after a fan celebration in Alex Box Stadium to honor the 2009 baseball national champion team on June 25, 2009. Mary Bourgeois, center, has her copy of The Advocate front page signed, and Chandler Denison, 13, left, has his baseball signed.

In the night sky over this classically midwestern American city, the blanket of stars includes some of the ones left behind by the LSU Tigers in their comet trail appearances at the College World Series.

Albert Belle. Ben McDonald. Todd Walker. Russ Johnson. Brandon Larson. Brad Cresse. Louis Coleman. So many others.

It’s a list that also includes the surprises, the shockers, the downright improbable heroes, the ones without whom the Tigers might never have left Alex Box Stadium North and returned south with six CWS trophies.

Every championship turn LSU has made featured key contributions from players who had been hurt, had struggled or never may have been that big of a factor before.

In 1991, Baker’s Chris Moock was a major part of the hit parade as LSU bashed its way to its first CWS title. In 1993, it was Jim Greely who smacked two home runs in the opener against Long Beach State and finished the week 8-for-17 with seven RBIs.

Warren Morris would have qualified for preordained stardom in 1996 were it not for the broken bone in his hand that caused him to miss nearly half the season. But it was the planets, not the stars, that aligned for LSU that year. What would have become of the Tigers in the final against Miami had Morris not been batting ninth?

No LSU team wielded a heavier bat than the 1997 squad that hit a likely-never-to-be-broken 188 home runs, including at least one in each of the 70 games it played. The last one was knocked out of Rosenblatt Stadium by right fielder Tom Bernhardt, who was 8-for-13 in the series with five RBIs.

In the 2000s, the pendulum swung to pitching. Trey Hodges battled injuries throughout the 2000 season but found his groove in time to earn Most Outstanding Player honors with a pair of wins and a save. In 2009, we offer Chad Jones, who dazzled Texas with his slider in a pair of clutch relief performances in the championship series against the Longhorns.

Yes, you need stars to stand on top of the dogpile at series end and wave the trophy, but everyone has stars. It’s the unsung, the previously unheralded who can provide that last extra bit of push to put a team over the top.

In other words, who can be the Nigel Tufnel who can turn the knob on their squad’s amplifier up to 11?

UCLA, LSU’s series-opening opponent Sunday night, can match the Tigers pitcher for A-list pitcher. LSU will run unbeaten Aaron Nola out onto the mound, while the Bruins will counter with equally gifted Adam Plutko. And batters from both teams would rather leave Omaha without one of its famous steaks in their bellies than stare down the barrel of the other’s closer, Chris Cotton from LSU or Adam Berg of UCLA.

Offensively, though, the Bruins speak softly and carry a swizzle stick. LSU is the best hitting team in the field at .308, while UCLA is well off that pace at a dietetic .251.

But great pitching can always be the great equalizer, and the Bruins have enough pitching for someone in their lightly tapping lineup to rap out a game-changing hit.

So LSU may need a rap artist of its own.

Who could it be?

How about catcher Ty Ross? Defensively he’s a rock for LSU, but offensively he’s wanting for some mojo with an average (.215) that just outpaces his weight (208). Still, he could swing a clutch bat as well as anyone.

Consider center fielder Andrew Stevenson. Despite hitting just .195 this season, he’s mainly in the lineup because of his ability to patrol lots of acres of outfield grass, a talent made even more important in TD Ameritrade Park’s wide-open spaces. But he collected a couple of hits in the Tigers’ super regional-clinching victory over Oklahoma a week ago and may still have some hits left in his parade.

On the mound, wouldn’t it be magical if Kurt McCune could regain his once-bright promise and deal the Tigers some critically clutch innings? Or if Nate Fury goes from Mason Katz’s home run derby pitcher in 2012 to winning pitcher in 2013?

In the end, none of the guys may be the one.

Many times, though, one more is all it takes to wind up No. 1 at the end of the College World Series.