OMAHA, Neb. — Nothing really went according to plan for the LSU baseball team during its cameo appearance in the College World Series.
It started during the opening ceremonies Friday night in TD Ameritrade Park. Each of the eight teams was introduced individually and marched from the center-field wall to the area in front of the dugouts.
Chairs that had been set up for the players and coaches were whisked away as severe weather headed toward the stadium.
The Tigers had just lined up in front of the third-base dugout they would occupy in their first two games — the one that initially had one too many L’s in the College World Series name that was painted on top of it.
Lightning lit up the sky as thousands of fans scattered from the ballpark to their vehicles to escape the approaching storm.
Soon the LSU team was scrambling too as rain poured down and brought the ceremonies to a premature end. The gusting wind, sheets of rain and flooding streets should have made anyone from South Louisiana feel right at home, but the Tigers never did seem at home.
A group that won more games than any other LSU team before reaching Omaha couldn’t win one here.
It didn’t hit well enough: three runs and 20 stranded runners in two games, a 2-1 loss to UCLA and a 4-2 loss to North Carolina.
It pitched well enough, but wasted it with the lack of timely hitting and two really poorly timed errors against UCLA.
In short, the two performances in Omaha weren’t indicative of what this team was during the preceding four months, when it compiled a 57-9 record and won a Southeastern Conference West Division championship and an SEC tournament title to earn the No. 1 spot in the polls.
“The way we played and the consistency we showed over several months was unbelievable,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “Then we came out here, and we just didn’t play very well. We didn’t play our best baseball.”
The Tigers lost consecutive games just one another time during the season — when South Carolina went into Alex Box Stadium in late April and won the last two games of an SEC series after LSU had won the opener.
“We had a lot of confidence in ourselves, and we absolutely felt that we could have won this championship,” designated hitter Sean McMullen said. “It’s just sad to see the season end this way.”
The Tigers expected their first game against UCLA on Sunday to be a lot like their first game against Oklahoma in the Baton Rouge Super Regional nine days earlier, and it was.
All-American right-hander Aaron Nola was matched against Bruins ace Adam Plutko, just as he had been matched against Sooners ace Jonathan Gray in The Box.
As Nola and Gray matched each other scoreless inning for scoreless inning, first baseman Mason Katz assured Nola that his teammates would get him at least one run. Nola replied that one run would be sufficient, LSU scored two, and Nola finished a two-hit shutout.
The Tigers were on their way to a super regional sweep.
Two runs might have been enough for Nola to outduel Plutko as well, but the LSU errors led to unearned runs as UCLA won 2-1.
The Tigers had a chance to tie the score in the ninth inning after Katz led off and reached on an error. Mainieri asked Raph Rhymes to bunt for the first time all season, but after Rhymes got ahead 2-0 in the count Mainieri switched to a hit and run.
Rhymes hit the ball hard to third base, but it turned into a double play as again nothing seemed to go according to plan. The Tigers put two more runners on base but couldn’t get the key hit.
That was a recurring theme as they had 10 hits against North Carolina, but scored just two runs after stranding 13 runners.
Mainieri had preached during the time between the super regional and the start of the CWS that the Tigers wouldn’t be awed by the circumstances, even though none of them had played in the series before.
“I downplayed the big stage,” Mainieri said. “I thought we were ready for it, but maybe it was a little bit of that (which contributed to the early exit).”
Though LSU was devoid of CWS experience, it did have eight seniors, including Katz, Rhymes, and relievers Brent Bonvillain and Chris Cotton, who kept them in the game against the Tar Heels after the team fell into an early 3-0 hole.
The mission all season had been to get the seniors to Omaha for the first time in their last chance — but also to stick around for more than two games.
“I just feel so sorry for all of the seniors that put in all of the hard work,” said McMullen, who will be a senior next season. “It just kills me to know that they’re not going to be putting on an LSU uniform again.”
Rhymes, who declined interview requests Tuesday after finishing 0-for-9 in the series, tried to keep the whole season in perspective before leaving Omaha on Wednesday morning.
“It wasn’t the outcome we planned for or wanted, but we accomplished a lot this season,” he said. “I know it hurts right now. But in a couple of weeks, I’m sure we’ll look back and see that we got to play in Omaha with our brothers and feel a lot better about it.”
Advocate sportswriter Scott Hotard contributed to this report.
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