LSU has been to the College World Series more often than any of the other seven schools in this year’s field. The Tigers are making their 16th trip to Omaha., Neb., as they seek their seventh national championship.
But that won’t do LSU any good when it faces UCLA at 7 p.m. Sunday: No player on this year’s squad has played in the College World Series.
In fact, no Tigers team has even played in TD Ameritrade Park, which replaced Rosenblatt Stadium in 2011 as home of the CWS.
UCLA has made two appearances since the Tigers last made it to Omaha in 2009. North Carolina, a potential opponent for the Tigers on Tuesday, went in 2011.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri would prefer to have a team stocked with CWS veterans, but he doesn’t. So the logical approach is to not focus on what the Tigers don’t have.
“I don’t think it’s critical that we were there last year in order to win this year,” Mainieri said. “South Carolina won it in 2010, and they hadn’t been there in the previous five years. So it can be done, and we believe that it will be. You just have to go into it with the right frame of mind.”
Mainieri has tried to put his players in the right frame of mind in a couple of ways. First, he pointed out to them that most of the potential distractions surrounding the CWS are things they should be comfortable with. LSU plays in a big, modern ballpark, faces top-flight competition on a regular basis, routinely plays in front of large crowds and deals with large media contingents as well as autograph seekers.
Additionally, Mainieri had undergraduate assistant coach Blake Dean talk to the team about his experience playing for the previous two LSU teams to reach Omaha — the 2008 squad, which was equally inexperienced, and the 2009 national championship group.
“We’re trying to negate the fact that we weren’t there last year,” Mainieri said.
The 2008 team lost its opener to North Carolina and bounced back to beat Rice before being eliminated by the Tar Heels.
“In ’08, we were a little bit like spectators,” Dean said. “We enjoyed the zoo and everything else. We were kind of fresh and didn’t know what to expect. We had to get used to the scene.”
Dean said he noticed a big difference in 2009.
“We knew everything to expect,” he said. “We were prepared, and we just took care of business. I told these guys to have fun, but be ready to play baseball.”
Mainieri said the 2009 team did exactly what Dean advised this year’s team to do.
“In ’09, you could see that the players enjoyed the total experience,” Mainieri said, “but they knew they were going to win. And that was what we went there to do.”
Several LSU players have been to the College World Series as spectators. Junior catcher Ty Ross was in Omaha as an 11-year-old in 2003 when his travel ball team played in a tournament in a small stadium near Rosenblatt. The experience left a lasting impression.
“It was an awesome experience, just seeing the stadium and how many fans were there and seeing college baseball players,” he said. “At that time, my goal was to play Division I-A baseball. I just remember that, even at 11 years old, I could sense that this was prime time, the mecca of college baseball.”
Senior outfielder Raph Rhymes has made four trips to the CWS with family and friends, the first coming in 2003 when he was 13. A native of Monroe who made up his mind during one of those trips that he would someday play baseball for the Tigers, Rhymes was struck by all of the purple and gold.
“I couldn’t believe how many LSU fans were there,” he said. “Everywhere we went, there seemed to be LSU people. I was young and didn’t understand they drove all that way. I just figured LSU was the team for people from Omaha. I didn’t understand it, but it is like a home game for LSU.”
Senior first baseman Mason Katz was in the stands in 2009 watching LSU win the title, figuring he’d join them on the field in Omaha as a freshman in 2010. It took three years longer than he planned, but he said that’s OK.
“It was a cool experience to play with guys that won a national championship,” he said. “I had a great experience with those guys, and I’m glad I get to go experience it for myself now.”
Like Katz anticipated for himself, shortstop Alex Bregman is making his CWS debut as a freshman. He said he and his teammates won’t be wide-eyed.
“I think it’s just another baseball game,” he said. “It’s still 90 feet to first base, 60 feet, 6 inches (from the mound to home plate). We’re just going to go out and play loose and have fun.”
Bregman said he realized just how loose this team is when he saw its matter-of-fact demeanor during the pitchers’ duel that the Tigers won 2-0 against Oklahoma in the first game of the Baton Rouge Super Regional last Friday.
“I think this team is a little different,” he said. “I don’t think we feel pressure. On Friday I really saw it. It was 0-0 in the eighth, and no one was really worried. We were just like, ‘OK, we’re going to get the job done, and we’re going to find a way to win.’
“That’s how our team thinks. We just have a common belief that we’re going to win.”