East: Motivated Tigers turn focus to another title

Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes had just finished playing their last game in Alex Box Stadium.

They sat at the podium with purple and gold Mardi Gras beads draped around their necks. Next to them was junior second baseman JaCoby Jones, a newly minted third-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Pirates who almost certainly had played his final home game as well.

They were soaking in the moment they had dreamed about, talked about and focused on for each of the 364 days after a one-win-short-of-Omaha loss to Stony Brook last season led to Saturday’s win over Oklahoma, which sent them to the College World Series.

For Katz, Rhymes and six other seniors, this entire season was played with the realization that it was their last chance to go to Omaha.

The enormity of that could have been a burden, but after seeing this team win at a higher rate than any other LSU baseball team, it’s clear that this whole Omaha thing was an asset.

It fueled and focused the players; it didn’t overwhelm or intimidate them. It drove each of them, not just the seniors.

“Being surrounded by freshmen who come in here every day and say, ‘We want to get the seniors to Omaha,’ makes it so much easier,” Katz said. “You don’t have to convince guys about what the goal is around here.”

The seniors, especially the three playing their fourth season at LSU — Katz, Chris Cotton and Alex Edward — knew they could become the first Tigers to enter the program in the past 30 years and go 0-for-4 in attempts to get to Omaha.

“That puts a lot of pressure on these kids,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “And they responded.”

The key newcomers — shortstop Alex Bregman, third baseman Christian Ibarra and outfielders Mark Laird, Andrew Stevenson and Sean McMullen — embraced the “Omaha or bust” mentality that every LSU team inherits but was felt more acutely by this one.

“The freshmen and the new guys just took that and ran with it,” Katz said. “They did everything and anything all year long to get us to this point.”

Bregman’s arrival gave Katz and Rhymes a kindred spirit in the middle of the order and the infield. He looked more like a senior than a freshman.

“This team has just jelled, and so much of the credit goes to Alex Bregman,” Mainieri said. “He’s gotten a lot of accolades — and deservedly so — but his demeanor and personality have added so much character to this team.”

Mainieri said Katz and Rhymes were “never jealous” of Bregman, and Bregman was “always respectful” of the seniors.

Much attention was paid to the quest of getting to Omaha, but the players always said their goal was twofold — to go to Omaha and win a national championship.

“Make no mistake about it: We’re going there to win,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got what it takes.

“This team is special. They’re on a mission.”