When you’re 43-6 and ranked No. 3 in the national polls, the praise flows like water down the Mississippi.
The faucet was wide open Tuesday, as former LSU coach Skip Bertman and former Tigers All-American pitcher Ben McDonald addressed a packed audience at current coach Paul Mainieri’s monthly luncheon at L’Auberge Baton Rouge.
“LSU has proven itself to be one of the top two or three teams in the country,” said McDonald, who works as an ESPN baseball analyst.
“This is the best defensive team I’ve ever seen at LSU,” Bertman said.
“(Aaron) Nola is as good as any pitcher in the country,” McDonald added. “(Alex) Bregman is probably the most talented freshman I’ve ever seen come through LSU. That’s a mouthful.”
Mainieri followed the LSU legends to the podium. He knows what it’s like to try to offer an encore to a tough act, merely from the act of following his hall of fame father Demie into the coaching profession and following Bertman into the LSU dugout.
He also knows where his team stands this season. Though there are only seven regular season games left, it’s a season that is really just beginning.
“This season will be remembered by what we do in the postseason,” Mainieri said. “I know that.”
Mainieri knows it’s Omaha or bust for LSU baseball. There is nothing that will satisfy the Tigers’ victory-flushed faithful like a trip to the College World Series.
LSU has done the great regular season/postseason spinout thing. The Tigers won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title last year and earned a
No. 8 seed, only to see what seemed like their manifest destiny ripped away by Stony Brook.
They say there’s no clock in baseball, but with LSU’s upset loss to Stony Brook in last year’s super regional, there was definitely an audible ticking to be heard at Alex Box Stadium/soon-to-be Skip Bertman Field. The Tigers haven’t been to Omaha since winning the 2009 CWS, the longest drought (if you can call it that) since Bertman started bringing LSU there in 1986.
Fifteen CWS appearances and six championships later, Mainieri knows the score. At least he knows his objective isn’t obscured by a lot of faint praise and puffed-up plaudits.
“To be considered one of the great teams at LSU there’s only one way our season can end,” he said, “holding the trophy above our heads in Omaha.”
Three games back of Vanderbilt in the overall SEC standings at 19-5, the Tigers have pretty much written off the conference regular-season title. The Commodores are steamrolling along at 21-2 and unlikely to fold.
Though always worth winning, LSU has already moved past such comparatively modest prizes.
“What’s more important,” Bertman asked, “winning the SEC or going to Omaha?” Then, with the timing of a comedic genius, Bertman paused and answered his own question in that incomparable Bertman way.
“Ehhh … Omaha,” he rumbled.
The last person in the room he had to tell was Mainieri.