Proud but unfulfilled, Tigers arrive back in Baton Rouge

OMAHA, Neb. — Dressed in business attire and with suitcases in tow, the LSU baseball team poured out of the DoubleTree hotel Wednesday morning and boarded a bus to Eppley Airfield, where they would leave behind dreams of winning a seventh national championship and catch a charter flight home.

The Tigers had arrived in Omaha less than a week earlier having already matched the school record for wins in a single season. But they were unable to build on a run that included five straight wins in regionals and super regionals to reach the College World Series for the first time since 2009.

Losses to UCLA and North Carolina by three combined runs sent LSU (57-11) to only its fourth winless CWS in 16 appearances.

“It’s one of the cruel realities of what we do,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, wearing a purple-and-gold-striped necktie and holding his young grandson, Holden, as he left the team hotel. “That unless you hold up the trophy at the end, you’re going to be really disappointed.”

Key moments from two heart-wrenching losses stayed with Mainieri like cold symptoms.

He thought of the full-count pitch North Carolina cleanup man Brian Holberton drilled for a two-run homer in the first inning of Tuesday’s elimination game. Or the pitch before — a pitch Mainieri thought should have been called strike three.

“It wasn’t like we came here and got lambasted,” Mainieri said. “A single play, a single pitch or a single at-bat can make the difference in these kind of ballgames.”

None of it changed the reality for an LSU team that won the Southeastern Conference tournament three weeks earlier and entered the NCAA tournament ranked first or second in the three national polls.

National Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman, who enjoyed arguably the best debut season of any player in LSU history, went 0-for-8 at the plate in the CWS and had a crucial fielding error Sunday against UCLA that allowed the Bruins to take their first lead.

All-Southeastern Conference senior Raph Rhymes went 0-for-9 and stranded 10 base runners in the two games. His double-play ground out in the ninth inning Sunday helped thwart LSU’s hopes of a late rally.

For Bregman, there will be more opportunities to help LSU reach the CWS and make amends.

For Rhymes, it’s off to pro ball.

“The three years I’ve played here have been the best of my life,” said Rhymes, a 15th-round pick in the MLB draft by the Detroit Tigers. “You can’t dwell on these past two games. You’ve just got to move on. It wasn’t the outcome we planned for or wanted, but we accomplished a lot this season. We left it all out there. We have no regrets.”

The bus ride to the airport ended a memorable week for the man who drove them.

Chris Clark, part of a team of Omaha bus drivers assigned to transport CWS qualifiers to and from practices and games, said he requested LSU when he learned the Tigers had made the field.

“I wouldn’t have traded these guys for the world,” Clark said. “They’re all class, and they love their baseball.”

As he watched the Tigers step aboard one last time Wednesday morning, Clark had each player sign the “Louisiana State” placard near the door of the bus.

This is a tradition for Clark, who said he has a wall full of signed placards in his Omaha home from the teams he has driven in years past.

“We’ll be following your every move,” Clark told LSU slugger Mason Katz as Katz signed his name.

Katz, who started 190 games for LSU in his four-year career, will soon begin his chase of playing in the big leagues after being taken in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft by the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Katz said Wednesday that he hadn’t yet graduated to that frame of mind.

He hadn’t put behind the goal he had only 24 hours earlier of helping lead LSU to the national championship.

Even though Katz went 3-for-5 in the two College World Series games with one of just two homers hit during the first eight games of the tournament, he said he was leaving his only trip to Omaha feeling unfulfilled.

“If I would have gone 0-fer and we’d still be playing, I’d be happier than I am today,” Katz said. “We only played two games.”

When the Tigers returned to Baton Rouge on Wednesday afternoon, Mainieri said he would say goodbye to the seniors, who helped author one of the great regular seasons in program history.

Then his focus would quickly turn.

“We’ll roll up our sleeves, get back to work (Thursday) and try to get us a team that will arrive back here in Omaha next year,” Mainieri said.

“Because we want to have another great season. We want to get back here,” Mainieri said. “We want to take another shot at it.”