LSU’s 1993 team won national title with talent, resilience

In some respects, the 1993 Tigers are LSU’s lost national champions.

They weren’t the first to win the College World Series. That happened in 1991.

They didn’t win in the most dramatic fashion. That happened in 1996, when Warren Morris (a freshman in 1993) hit his legendary home run.

They weren’t the most dominant LSU team ever. That was the Geauxrilla Ball national championship squad of 1997.

But the 1993 team’s story deserves to be retold, the story of perhaps the most dramatic season in LSU baseball history.

LSU started the season ranked No. 1 in the three major preseason polls of the day. Expectations were enormous from the start.

Todd Walker, 2B: “When you have that tag on you, it’s very difficult, because whoever you play, they’re going to throw their ace. They want to beat you, and if they do, that’s their season. Of course, we lost a few games to teams like that that basically made their year.”

The Tigers had talent to match their expectations. Six players off the 1993 team eventually played in the major leagues: Walker, Morris, Russ Johnson, Mike Sirotka, Armando Rios and Brett Laxton. Several others, like Jason Williams, Adrian Antonini and Harry Berrios, also played professionally.

Williams, 3B: “I always say Antonini was one of the best catchers I ever played with. He played (minor league) pro ball. He had like one passed ball all year and a cannon for an arm. No one stole on him.”

The 1993 Tigers had more than ability. They had chemistry as well.

Walker: “Sundays we’d have chapel service. Most teams I was on, we’d have five or six guys there. I’m not saying everyone was a Christian, but we had 25 guys go to chapel service, 25 go eat dinner together. I believe that kind of stuff makes a difference on the field. There is a lot of jealousy and lot of other things that can creep into a team, a cancer that causes you to fold. We didn’t have any of that. Everybody was pulling for one another.”

LSU also had Skip Bertman as its coach. Driven and demanding, Bertman coached each year with the goal of getting to Omaha and would, in Johnson’s words, weed out the players who couldn’t get the Tigers there.

Johnson, SS: “He was a dictator. ‘This is how we’re going to do it. I’m a superstar, and you’re a nobody.’ Bertman is a very politically correct and very well-spoken person, smart as a whip. But he’s highly competitive. He would say, ‘If you can’t handle the pressure I put on you, there’s no way you’re going to handle 25,000 people screaming and hollering at you on the baseball field. If you can’t handle me telling you you’re horrible, much less 25,000 in Omaha, I’ll already know you can’t handle it.’ He was a great teacher.”

Despite their talent, chemistry and coaching, the Tigers were hardly dominant. A 12-game winning streak to open the season belied the fact LSU had to fight from behind game after game.

Williams: “We definitely had the heart of a tiger. It didn’t matter how many runs we were down; we knew we would come back and win. We’d get five runs down and wouldn’t panic. We’d get a home run, and we’d be right back in it.”

LSU had an ace in Sirotka and a top starter in Scott Schultz, but the development of the freshman Laxton would prove critical to its championship hopes.

Bertman: “Midseason, I was working with Laxton in the bullpen as I did once a week. That day, we had this (cut fastball) we were working on. He couldn’t throw the curveball yet. Then, there it was. I said, ‘I think we may have won the national championship today. That’s a helluva pitch.’ He picked up that pitch and pulled us through.”

LSU finished the regular season 41-14-1 and won the Southeastern Conference with an 18-8-1 record. That year, there were two SEC tournaments — one in the Western Division and one in the East. In what would become a familiar script, LSU dropped an SEC tourney game to Mississippi State but fought out of the losers bracket to win. Same thing happened in the NCAA South Regional at LSU, when the Tigers lost to Kent State and roared back to reach their sixth CWS.

Johnson: “We had a really good baseball team but not a normal team. We earned that success from grinding and overcoming. We had to come from behind many times during the season, not quit and grind through the game sometimes with just one out left in the game. We overcame a lot of adversity, and it paid off in the World Series.”

LSU won its first two CWS games 7-1 over Long Beach State and 13-8 over Texas A&M before a 10-8 loss to Long Beach State sent the Tigers back into the losers bracket. Down 5-3 to Long Beach in the bottom of the ninth, it looked like LSU was finally done.

Bill Franques, longtime LSU baseball SID: “Long Beach had a superb lefty reliever named Gabe Gonzalez who had been nearly unhittable throughout the CWS. Things looked pretty dire until Adrian Antonini, who was hitting eighth — I believe at the time he had the lowest batting average on the team — led off with a single. When he did that, I think that energy just filtered throughout the dugout. The team knew they could make something happen.”

Walker: “Mark Stocco pinch-hit for Kenny Jackson but struck out. Then Jason Williams, who was leading off, walked. Then Armando Rios hits a ball in the gap to tie it up.”

Rios’ double to left-center drove home pinch runner Ryan Huffman and Williams to tie the score at 5. Two batters later, Walker smashed a ball off the glove of first baseman John Swanson , scoring Rios.

Walker: “If he catches the ball, he steps on first for a double play, but it ricocheted off his glove into right field.”

Franques: “I still say, 20 years later, that has to be one of the greatest LSU victories in Omaha.”

LSU turned to Laxton to pitch the national championship game against Wichita State, the team the Tigers beat for their first title in 1991. Using that cut fastball, Laxton struck out 16 batters in throwing a three-hit complete game in an 8-0 victory, one of the most dominant pitching performances in CWS history.

Williams: “(Wichita State was) were loaded. They had (future MLB pitcher) Darren Dreifort on the mound, a really good team. But Brett was outstanding.”

Walker was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player and went on to become the only LSU player on the CWS Legends Team in 2011. Laxton, Sirotka, Antonini and left fielder Jim Greely were named to the All-CWS Team.

Bertman: “I say this all the time, but it’s real: They had chemistry. It allowed them to bounce back from anything that didn’t go right. If I made a poor coaching decision, they would cover it up with their talent.”

From preseason No. 1 to national champions, the 1993 Tigers lived up to both the pressure and the promise with a title that provided the perfect cap to the 100th anniversary of LSU athletics. The Tigers returned to the CWS in 1994 and went 0-2 but came back to win in 1996 with Williams and Morris again starring.

Williams: “Everyone talks about the ‘Warren Morris year’ (of 1996). People remember what is most recent. But I was there five years (redshirting in 1992), and I went to three College World Series and won two of them. That’s not too bad.”

Walker: “We had talent, but more than that, we fought. We loved each other and our coaches. You combine that with talent, and you’ve got something.”