Here’s a look at how LSU and Texas stack up in various phases of the game:
Texas will have its ace, sophomore righthander Chance Ruffin (10-2, 3.27), going on five days’ rest in Monday’s opener, and LSU will counter with its co-ace, senior righty Louis Coleman (14-2, 2.68), on six days’ rest. That’s a very even matchup, as both pitchers have similar styles. Both have solid though not overwhelming stuff, but what makes them special is their aggressive, fearless mentalities. Give a slight edge to Coleman, the SEC pitcher of the year and a first-team All-American, because he’s just been a hair more consistent than Ruffin this year, and he has the advantage of more experience.
Coleman has both succeeded and failed on the Omaha stage; last year he surrendered a ninth-inning, tie-breaking grand slam to North Carolina’s Tim Federowicz, absorbing his only loss of the season in LSU’s final game. One gets the feeling Coleman won’t let himself be the goat again.
“You can play it so many times. A quarterback has a short memory, but when it comes to being a pitcher it’s kind of hard to lose the memory,” Coleman said. “I thought about it for 365 days until we got back here. But you can’t live in the past.”
LSU will have a decision to make in Game Two on Tuesday. Sophomore righthander Anthony Ranaudo threw just 77 pitches over six innings Friday, and Tigers coach Paul Mainieri has indicated he’ll be an option for Game Two on three days’ rest if he feels up to it. Texas is likely to counter with freshman righty Taylor Jungmann, provided he doesn’t throw in relief Monday. Jungmann is one of the few pitchers in the nation who can match Ranaudo for stuff and poise; that hypothetical matchup is dead even.
Give Texas the edge for a possible Game Three. The Longhorns would likely bring back sophomore righty Cole Green on four days’ rest, while LSU would likely have to go to sophomore righty Austin Ross, who is far less reliable.
On the whole, this matchup is a wash. Appropriately, both teams enter the Finals with identical 3.67 ERAs in Omaha.
LSU freshman closer Matty Ott has been a rock all season, and Mainieri said he wasn’t concerned about Ott after he served up a three-run homer to Arkansas’ Chase Leavitt in garbage time Friday. Ott’s supporting cast—Daniel Bradshaw, Paul Bertuccini, Nolan Cain, Chad Jones—came up big in the SEC tournament and has been solid when needed in the NCAA tournament, but Texas has more bullpen arms it can count on.
Longhorns closer Austin Wood didn’t look himself in his first couple of outings since his epic 13-inning performance against Boston College in regionals, but he bounced back with three quality innings Friday against Arizona State. Certainly, there isn’t a closer in the country with more mental toughness than Wood.
“Not very often does a player say to you, ‘I want to be a hero.’ And not very often does a player who’s the leader of the team put himself at risk for the good of the team,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said, referring to the 25-inning classic against BC. “In this particular game, he was at the 90- to 100-pitch mark. He walked by me in the dugout and said, ‘Don’t you even think about taking me out of this game.’ Now he knows what not many people know: You really can be anything you want to be. You just have to take what belongs to you, and that game belonged to him.”
Freshman righthander Austin Dicharry (another hero of the 25-inning game) gives Texas a reliable setup man with an outstanding breaking ball, and sophomore righty Brandon Workman gives the ‘Horns a power arm in long relief if necessary.
Texas leads the nation with 102 sacrifice bunts, but the Longhorns have broken out the heavy artillery in Omaha, where they have as many homers (six) as sacrifices. Hulking sophomore catcher Cameron Rupp has three of them, including the game-tying shot over the center-field hitter’s eye in the bottom of the ninth Friday against Arizona State.
“I don’t really think our teams are that different, quite frankly,” Mainieri said. “I think everybody knows the ballpark in Texas is more of a pitcher’s ballpark, and the ballpark in Baton Rouge is a hitter’s ballpark. I think their pitching numbers are somewhat lower than they would be if they played in our ballpark, and their hitting numbers are also.”
Still, LSU has the deeper, more powerful, more explosive, more athletic lineup.
“It seems like they pretty consistently smash the baseball, at least since they’ve been here,” Ruffin said of the Tigers.
But the Tigers aren’t just grip it and rip it. LSU is a patient, mature offensive team that ranks fourth in the nation with 338 walks. And premium athletes like Jared Mitchell, Mikie Mahtook and Ryan Schimpf can wreak havoc on the basepaths.
“They don’t pull the ball as much as I thought—they drive the ball to all fields,” Texas third baseman Michael Torres said of LSU. “You hear a lot about their power, but something that doesn’t get talked about is they have a lot of speed, too, and that could definitely come into play.”
Texas entered Omaha with a .979 fielding percentage, fourth-best in the nation and the best of the eight CWS teams. LSU ranked 21st nationally at .973, but the Tigers are fielding 1.000 in three games at Rosenblatt Stadium, while Texas ranks eighth out of the eight CWS teams with a .941 fielding percentage in Omaha.
“They haven’t made any mistakes throughout this whole tournament—their pitching’s been nails, their defense has been great,” Garrido said of LSU. “Most people would probably pick them as the favorites with the errors we’ve made, and the three-inning imitation of the Bad News Bears (Tuesday against Arizona State).”
Both teams feature talented freshmen at shortstop in Brandon Loy and Austin Nola. Both feature solid catchers in sophomores Rupp and Micah Gibbs. LSU has the faster, more athletic outfield (especially if Texas plays former catcher Preston Clark in left), but Texas is better at the infield corners with Torres and Brandon Belt.
This matchup pits two of the game’s greatest coaches against each other. Garrido, of course, might be the best coach of all time, a master motivator with five national titles under his belt. But Mainieri has transformed LSU back into a national superpower in just three seasons in Baton Rouge. He gets the most out of his players and has a great feel for in-game strategy.
“If you love college baseball as I do, then you have to be a fan of Augie Garrido,” Mainieri said. “He’s won more games than any coach in the history of (Division I) college baseball, he’s won five national championships, he’s a wonderful person and a great coach. He epitomizes everything that’s good about college baseball. It’s a great challenge to go up against him. I’m really looking to that challenge personally.”
LSU has more players with previous Omaha experience thanks to its 2008 CWS run, while Texas has no players with prior experience at Rosenblatt. Texas has garnered plenty of “team of destiny” talk for the dramatic ways it has won in this postseason.
But LSU has been gearing up for this since it was eliminated from the CWS last year, and the Tigers have not wavered in their dogged determination.
“This was a unique year as I see it because we were coming off the World Series appearance last year, having as many players off last year’s team as we have, the preseason No. 1 ranking (in some polls) and oh, by the way, we built a beautiful new stadium,” Mainieri said. “There were a lot of expectations coming into this season, and our players have handled it remarkably.”
Slight Edge: LSU.