OMAHA, Neb. — The LSU Tigers thought they would be leaving the College World Series in another week or so with a national championship trophy in their grasp.
Instead, there the Tigers were after Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to North Carolina: trooping glumly toward their bus down a hallway beneath TD Ameritrade Park, the only sound their cleats crunching against the concrete floor.
They came, they saw, they lost. Twice. Given all LSU has accomplished this season, it seemed the least likely outcome in the world.
In reality it wasn’t that much of a stretch. Getting to the CWS is the significant achievement. Winning it is often a role of the dice, the turn of a friendly card.
“Just getting to Omaha is a tremendous accomplishment,” an emotional LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “But right now, it just doesn’t feel like it.”
There were friendly Nebraska faces all around this town this week, thrilled to see LSU back here after a four-year absence. LSU in Omaha means jingling cash registers. Was it any surprise that in a pregame sound check of LSU and North Carolina fans, the purple and gold people buried the needle?
Unfortunately for the faithful who trekked 1,000 miles to be here hoping to witness LSU national championship No. 7, they were instead forced to watch a Tigers offense that couldn’t move the meter.
LSU managed just three runs in 18 innings here, its worst showing ever and tied for the lowest scoring output in the CWS in the past 20 years. Stony Brook, adding coincidence to injury, also scored just three runs hear last year after tasering the Tigers in the 2012 Baton Rouge Super Regional.
LSU stranded the equivalent of Iberville Parish on base in these two games. OK, it was 20, but it seemed like many more. The Tigers’ bats turned to cream cheese just when they needed to be their stoutest, with batters Nos. 3-6 — Alex Bregman, Mason Katz, Raph Rhymes and Christian Ibarra — going a combined 3-for-29 here, all the hits by Katz.
Some will blame the oversized ballpark (it is too big). Some will blame Maineri and his hitting coach, Javi Sanchez. Some will blame the players themselves.
In the end, blame baseball. Somebody has to go 0-2 in each bracket, and baseball doesn’t care whether you won 57 games coming into Omaha or 37, whether you’re ranked No. 1 in the polls like LSU or were off-off-Broadway like a Stony Brook.
“Great teams go to Omaha and don’t always win,” former LSU coach Skip Bertman said. “That’s baseball.”
As great as LSU seemed to be coming here, as dipped in bronze as its resume was, every team here is great or playing great. Often times, the latter carries the day.
On paper, this was the Tigers’ year to win. They had literally everything: hitting, pitching, fielding and leadership from eight seniors, an uncommonly large sample size for baseball.
It should have happened for LSU this year except that in this game, when failing seven times out of 10 can land you in the hall of fame, sometimes it doesn’t.
Still LSU looked to be in good shape against North Carolina on Tuesday. With a starting rotation shakier than the San Andreas Fault, the Tar Heels started freshman closer Trent Thornton.
It looked like UNC was grasping at straws, except its plan worked. Thornton didn’t unravel like a mislabled Mississippi State Rebels T-shirt but hung tough for seven innings, keeping LSU’s wobbly batting order off balance long enough to survive and advance.
In retrospect, LSU looked a little like Oklahoma did after losing Game 1 of the Baton Rouge Super Regional behind its ace, No. 3 draft pick Jonathan Gray.
When the Tigers went down Sunday to UCLA with All-American Aaron Nola on the mound, it looked like it winded them against North Carolina. After Brian Holbertson’s two-run home run in the top of the first Tuesday, just the second off Cody Glenn this season, LSU was halfway back to Baton Rouge.
That will once again be LSU’s address by sometime Wednesday afternoon. Without a trophy, with plenty of sadness and frustration, wondering when they will ever have this good a shot to win the College World Series again.