Tigers get first look at Omaha’s new jewel

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- The LSU baseball team checks out the field at TD Ameritrade Park for the the first time as practice begins at the College World Series on June 14, 2013, in Omaha, Neb.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- The LSU baseball team checks out the field at TD Ameritrade Park for the the first time as practice begins at the College World Series on June 14, 2013, in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. — At 3 p.m. Friday, the LSU baseball team set foot on the grass of TD Ameritrade Park for the first time.

The Tigers spilled out of the third-base dugout clad in familiar gold jerseys for practice at the site of their College World Series opener against UCLA on Sunday night.

In some ways, it was just a normal practice. The team went through its standard stretching routine in the outfield as undergraduate assistant coach Blake Dean and equipment manager Matt Fury played a game of catch in foul territory in front of the dugout.

A few minutes later, head coach Paul Mainieri and assistant Will Davis picked up a baseball and started tossing it back and forth. Down in the left-field bullpen, right-hander Ryan Eades got in his sidework under the watchful eye of pitching coach Alan Dunn.

Davis and Dean split the mound duty, throwing batting practice to groups of hitters as teammates shagged flies and snared grounders.

Though the routine could have passed for an early-season, midweek workout in Alex Box Stadium, the surroundings provided by the crown jewel of college baseball brought reminders that this day and this place were extraordinary.

An LSU baseball team was on the field in this three-year-old stadium for the first time as the squad with the best won-lost record in school history continued pursuit of the program’s seventh national championship.

Large capital letters painted on the façade of the upper deck screamed “History happens here,” and history will be made as the 67th CWS begins Saturday.

The sprinkling of fans in the stands and the large number of camera crews circling the batting cage made it clear this was no ordinary practice.

LSU designated hitter Sean McMullen took a break in the dugout to sing Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” for an ESPN camera crew.

“I can’t believe I’m actually out here playing,” McMullen said. “I’ve only dreamed of this day. I’m going to soak it all in. Like my coach said, I like my cake, and I’m going to eat it, too. I’m going to enjoy this, but we’ve also got business to take care of.”

LSU went ahead and took care of business in the 60-minute workout, just as the other seven teams did.

The players were struck by just how big the park is. The dimensions are 375 feet to the power alleys and 408 feet to center field, but on Friday the wind was blowing in at 27 mph and gusting to 33, making it play even bigger.

“It’s playing like it’s 400 feet to left,” said first baseman Mason Katz, who hit 16 home runs in TD Ameritrade under much calmer conditions in a home run derby last summer.

“I don’t think there are going to be too many home runs hit here in the next week or two,” said right-hander Aaron Nola, who is slated to start Sunday. “This park is unbelievable. It’s a big league park.”

Shortstop Alex Bregman said he “was getting butterflies in the hotel room” before heading to the park some 2½ days before the first game.

When the Tigers hit the field to work out, a chant of “L-S-U” went up from the stands.

“This is the spot,” Bregman said. “This is where you need to be — beautiful playing surface, beautiful stands. It’s so much fun to be out here. There’s a buzz already going around the stadium. It was good to hear some LSU fans over there.”

Bregman, the national freshman of the year, was making himself at home as quickly as he did when he arrived on LSU’s campus from Albuquerque, N.M.

“This is the grass I play on back home,” he said. “So it’s a little different from Louisiana. It plays a little slower, so I have to come get everything at shortstop.”

UCLA followed LSU to the field, and all eight teams got together for an evening cookout before watching the scheduled opening ceremonies.

On Saturday, games between Indiana and Louisville as well as Oregon State and Mississippi State will take center stage. The Tigers will have a more mundane practice at a nearby high school.

“We feel like we’ve already been here a long time, and it’s only been a day,” Katz said. “This week is going by extremely slowly. This is all exciting, but we want to hit the fast-forward button to the game.”