OXFORD, Miss. — LSU’s baseball team has much more work to do and loftier goals to try to achieve, but the series win at Ole Miss this past weekend was significant in its own right.
The Tigers clinched a berth in the Southeastern Conference tournament, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion and should be virtually automatic for a program of this stature.
But last season LSU failed to qualify for the SEC tournament, and ultimately the NCAA tournament, and those shortcomings have motivated the players for the past 11-plus months.
So getting that formality out of the way was important, even though the addition of two more teams to the field this season expedited it.
Qualifying for the SEC tournament isn’t vindication for what happened last season as much as it is a sign that this season represents a return to the highest goals that are so familiar to this program and its followers.
Coach Paul Mainieri put the rest of the season in perspective as he allowed himself a rare moment to look ahead and contemplate what awaits.
The Tigers have a four-game lead over second-place Arkansas in the Western Division — and the tiebreaker with the Razorbacks thanks to a series sweep last month — with six games to play.
That puts them in position to clinch the West perhaps as early as this weekend when they play Vanderbilt in Alex Box Stadium.
They are tied with South Carolina for the SEC overall lead, and the regular-season title likely will be decided when the Tigers and Gamecocks meet in Columbia next week.
Then comes the SEC tournament, an NCAA regional, etc., etc.
“Our destiny is in our own hands, and that’s what you want,” Mainieri said. “You can feel that it’s within your reach. It would be an awesome experience if we could find a way to win the SEC West this weekend. Then, we could turn our attention South Carolina and maybe a shot at the SEC title and a national seed.”
In addition to division and conference titles, LSU is playing for an opportunity to maximize its chances of advancing in the postseason. Earning the right to play a regional in Alex Box Stadium increases the odds of reaching a super regional. Playing a super regional in Alex Box would enhance the chances of returning to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
Of course, Omaha is a long way down the road, but the Tigers are pointed in the right direction.
Shortstop Austin Nola, his fellow seniors and others, such as upcoming first-round draft choice Kevin Gausman, are getting ready for their final SEC series in the Box.
“I’ve been here for four years, and there aren’t that many games left,” Nola said. “So I’m not taking any of them lightly or taking any of them for granted, because I know how quick this season is going to end. I’m just enjoying coming to the ballpark and playing baseball.”
It’s starting to seem like old times.