OMAHA, Neb. — After an unusually long three-year absence, the LSU baseball team is returning to its summer home here.
The restaurants, bars and citizens are rolling out the purple-and-gold carpet for their most familiar and favorite visitors as the Tigers seek their seventh national championship.
And guess who’s the team to beat?
No. 1 national seed North Carolina? Well, maybe, but the Tar Heels were pushed to the brink of elimination in their regional by Florida Atlantic of all teams and were a late qualifier for the College World Series as weather and pesky South Carolina pushed their super regional into overtime, nearly 72 hours after LSU started making reservations for Omaha and the folks at Barrett’s Barleycorn started dogpiling.
No. 3 seed Oregon State? Could be, but the Tigers had their feet propped up as they watched the Beavers finally put away Kansas State in a tight three-game series.
Only three national seeds made it to this CWS — tying for the fewest ever — and No. 4 LSU is the only one to sail through the regionals and super regionals undefeated. It was the first team to qualify for Omaha, and it will be the most rested team when it takes the field against UCLA in TD Ameritrade Park on Sunday night.
The Tigers have the best record in the country and the best in their storied history (57-9) — and nobody plays Omaha in June like they and their fans do.
So, kick off your shoes and take a load off, because LSU might be staying for a while.
“I feel really confident in this team,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “I feel about as good as I could possibly feel about a team going there.”
Mainieri has a lot of reasons for feeling confident about a team that rewrote the school record book entries for winning.
LSU features an unusually large group of seniors (eight), galvanized by heart-of-the-order leaders in first baseman Mason Katz and left fielder Raph Rhymes and strike-throwing, hit-it-if-you-can-but-you-probably-can’t closer Chris Cotton.
The Tigers have a once-in-a-decade-if-you’re-lucky phenom in shortstop and National Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman.
They have perhaps the hottest pitcher in the country in Game 1 starter Aaron Nola, who’s 12-0 with an ERA that has dived to 1.68 — and he could wind up making two additional starts if LSU stays until the end.
“When you have the best pitcher in the country, it makes it a lot easier,” Bregman said. “Every time Aaron steps on the field, he knows he’s the best pitcher in the country.
“He’s the same guy every time he goes out there; he doesn’t change a thing. He throws three pitches for strikes, and he can put the ball anywhere he wants at any time in any count. He’s a fierce competitor. He’s locked in.”
LSU has been one of the best fielding teams in the country all season, a trait that will come in handy in spacious TD Ameritrade and places it a cut or three above everyone else in the field except UCLA.
The Tigers are even getting healthy at the right time as they should have their regular lineup in tact and 100 percent for the first time in a month.
But, Mainieri cautioned, “nothing’s perfect.”
Though Nola has been pretty close to perfect of late, Ryan Eades has not been his best as the No. 2 starter recently and Cody Glenn, the No. 3 who could move up a spot in Omaha, hasn’t pitched in four weeks. He wasn’t active for the Baton Rouge Regional as punishment for violating an unspecified team rule, and he didn’t pitch in the Baton Rouge Super Regional because of LSU’s efficiency in sweeping Oklahoma.
“The fact that I feel really good about where we are doesn’t mean we’re going to play great,” Mainieri said. “It’s going to come down to who pitches better, makes the plays and get the big hits. It always does. If we play as well as we can I think we can beat anybody in the field.”
Speaking of the field, UCLA has pitching and defense that’s comparable to LSU’s, but the Bruins are offensively challenged.
The winner and loser of the Tigers-Bruins game will play Tuesday against their counterparts from the Sunday matinee between North Carolina and North Carolina State, who are too focused on renewing their rivalry to pay much attention to who might be next.
On the other side of the bracket, Saturday’s opening game matches Indiana, the first Big Ten team to play in the CWS since 1984, two years before LSU made the first of its 16 appearances, and Louisville, which swept Southeastern Conference overall champion Vanderbilt in the Nashville Regional.
The Saturday night matchup has Oregon State against Mississippi State, the only SEC team besides the Tigers to get here, providing the specter of a juicy potential championship series storyline.
But in the meantime, TD Ameritrade will officially be christened Alex Box North II when an LSU baseball team takes the field here for the 56th time Sunday night.
“Everybody I’ve talked to in Baton Rouge says they’re going, and that’s been a good amount of people and I know there’s tons more going,” Katz said. “I don’t think anybody has said they’re not coming.”
The Tigers will be in prime time Sunday night, the featured attraction as the first round of games concludes. It’s a familiar role LSU is reprising.
“We feel like teams are going to come out and give us their best game like they have all year,” Bregman said. “Every team looks at LSU on their schedule and says, ‘Hey, let’s go beat those guys.’
“We love it. We love being the team that everybody wants to beat, because it just makes us show up and play harder every day.”
Bregman, who more than any other Tiger exudes the confidence Mainieri verbalized, went uncharacteristically politically correct for a moment.
“We’re going to have to show up ready to play every time,” he said. “There are a lot of good teams.”
Then he paused, weighing his thought before finishing — “We will end up winning.”
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