OMAHA, Neb. — Just before LSU came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday, a highlight video of the Tigers’ 2009 College World Series championship run played on the giant scoreboard in right field.
It could have inspired a classic rally, keeping LSU in the hunt for a seventh national championship.
Instead the sight of LSU’s past glory seemed like a cruel reminder that these Tigers were on their way out. And how much things have chanced since LSU was last in Omaha.
The Tigers came here this year with as good of a team as you could hope to have. Strong starting pitching. A deep bullpen. A quality lineup with a decent amount of power. Superb defense and senior leadership.
In the end, it wasn’t enough to register for one victory, much less a championship.
In one respect, it’s a difficult thing to do, much more difficult than when LSU won five championships in 10 seasons under Skip Bertman from 1991-2000. There were no Stony Brooks back then, and more schools that paid lip service to baseball instead of paying to showcase the sport in gleaming new ballparks.
How tough? Since Bertman last led LSU to the CWS in 2000, the Tigers have made five appearances in Omaha. In those five appearances, LSU has gone 0-2, 0-2, 1-2, 5-1 (to win the 2009 CWS) and 0-2. That’s a combined record of 6-9, 6-5 under coach Paul Mainieri.
Sobering numbers for a program that used to bend college baseball to its will, that helped dictate the terms on which the game was played.
Now everyone is playing a different game, and for LSU to have success here moving forward, it certainly looks like the Tigers will have to change with the times.
One look at the College Worlds Series’ still gleaming new home tells you that. TD Ameritrade Park is an amazing, if sterile, looking jewel perched a couple of Mason Katz home-run blasts (or about 160 UCLA sacrifice bunts) from downtown Omaha and the Missouri River. The park has the same dimensions as old Rosenblatt Stadium, the main differences being this new park is dug into the ground instead of sitting up on a hill, and the bats players are using now have much less pop than they used to.
Both have conspired to create a power shortage at the CWS.
Going into Wednesday night’s Indiana-Oregon State game, there had been 21 home runs hit in the first three CWS at TDAPO. Unless the bats change (it’s more likely the CWS will move back to Kalamazoo), the balls change (could happen), or they move in the outfield fences 10 feet (remember Kalamazoo), you’re probably going to have to play a little more small ball. Or at least have the capability to do that.
Everyone in the lineup needs to be able to get down a bunt. That isn’t always the case with LSU. Not that the Tigers’ approach is a wrong one, but to succeed on this stage, it’s evident the ability to manufacture runs is as or more important at times than the ability to stand and wait for the RBI double.
And waiting for the three-run homer? Forget about it.
Believe me, I hate to be The Advocate’s advocate for anything approaching the UCLA style. That a team of hitless wonders can score a total of four runs — one more than LSU scored in two games — and be one win away from the CWS championship series is distasteful to say the least. Watching UCLA play its style for an entire season would be as fun as auditing tax returns.
But UCLA is 2-0 and LSU is 0-2. You can blame baseball for being baseball for part of the reason why a very good Tigers team is home now and a pretty good Bruins team is still Omaha, but it isn’t the only reason.
We’re not talking a wholesale change in LSU baseball philosophy, just a modest one. And if you want historical perspective, Bertman went from being a small-ball guy when he arrived at LSU to a guy who wholeheartedly gave himself over to what he even called the “stand and whack” attack.
I miss all the home runs. No one is ever going to plaster videos of a UCLA bunt all over YouTube. But a more effective mix of both is what LSU may need next time it gets back to Omaha to create a new highlight reel.