Some teams are just happy to be at the College World Series. Everyone says they are in it to win it, but for some programs, just getting to Omaha is enough.
That showed with Stony Brook in 2012, or Southern Mississippi in 2009, or San Jose State in 2000, or any number of Cinderella teams that have come to the Series and left quickly with 0-2 marks.
But a two-and-barbecue exit was not expected this year for Louisville, and certainly not for Louisiana State. The Cardinals entered the season ranked No. 4, won the Big East Conference regular season and stormed through the postseason, humbling Vanderbilt with an impressive road sweep in the super regional.
LSU won the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, then beat Vandy to win the SEC tournament before earning its way to Omaha with a home regional win and a super regional sweep of Oklahoma.
National writer Aaron Fitt and I both considered LSU the favorite on its side of the CWS bracket, and Aaron picked Louisville on the other side after its super regional performance. (I picked Oregon State, for the record.) But the Cardinals had a CWS to forget, falling 2-0 to Indiana before an error-filled 11-4 blowout in an elimination loss to Oregon State that left them just 1-4 in their two Series trips under coach Dan McDonnell, in 2007 and ’13.
“I’m sure our guys are very disappointed, (we) just didn’t play well, didn’t play clean there in the third and fourth innings and it got out of hand,” coach Dan McDonnell said. “I know our guys are very disappointed. This is very tough at this moment, but I don’t want this game to define them or define their season. It’s a special group. Had a special year. And I told them just what I told the ’07 team: If our season had to end on a loss, I’d always want that loss to be in Omaha.”
That’s not good enough at LSU, whose six national championships are tied for second all-time. That success had bred more success—LSU led the nation in attendance, averaging 11,006 fans a game over 43 dates—as well as expectations for more national titles.
The last one came in 2009, the Tigers’ most recent trip to the Series, and this year’s journey maintained a 31-year streak. Every class of four-year seniors at LSU has earned a CWS trip since 1982. In the pre-series press conference, LSU coach Paul Mainieri was asked if reaching Omaha “finally” relieved some pressure.
“Finally, finally got here, OK? It’s been a whole three years,” he said with a laugh. “Hey, that’s what you sign up for at LSU. Nobody pulled the wool over my eyes when I took this job at LSU. I knew what I was getting into, and that is the standard. If you’re afraid, you don’t go to LSU, I can tell you that right now as a player or as a coach. We won the championship in ’09, and I think the first question in the postgame press conference was ‘Can you repeat next year?’ So that is what you’re used to around there.”
Senior first baseman Mason Katz did his part, hitting a solo homer in the Tigers’ opener against UCLA and reaching base five times and driving in a run in an elimination game against North Carolina. But Katz had little help. He had the only two RBIs for LSU in its two Series games, and that lack of offense, plus some ill-timed defensive lapses against UCLA, led to a pair of close losses, 2-1 to the Bruins and 4-2 to the Tar Heels. The Tigers left 13 runners on base in the elimination loss, leaving Mainieri grasping for answers.
“We had so many opportunities,” Mainieri said. “We got guys on base and just couldn’t come through with the hits that we needed. And so we didn’t play our best out here. We know that. We’re disappointed in that, and we came here to win, came here to win a championship. And we came up a little bit short.
“But in time, I’m not going to let that fact take away from these kids and what they accomplished this year. They are champions, and we won several championships this year. We just didn’t win the big one, the big championship. And we went two and out and we’re going to have to deal with that. “
Most LSU fans may not agree, but I happen to think any season that ends in Omaha is a success. The postseason is just a little too random, especially in TD Ameritrade Park. The three-year-old home of the CWS eliminates the home run as an offensive weapon—just two were hit in the first eight games—and rewards athleticism, speed, defense and strike-throwing over power pitching and power bats.
It seems clear that the dimensions of TD Ameritrade have to change. At 408 feet to dead center and 375 to the power alleys—a Bermuda Triangle where no one has hit a homer in more than 100 all-time games at the park—it’s too big for college baseball’s BBCOR era. I’d propose 360-foot alleys like Rosenblatt Stadium had for many years in the 1990s, and 390 or so in center. Maybe that would bring some power back into the CWS.
Whatever the dimensions, Louisville and LSU will be back in Omaha as well.