College World Series: LSU, Florida Prepare for SEC Showdown

Kevin O’Sullivan and Paul Mainieri (Photo by Mike Lananna)

OMAHA—On Saturday night, Louisiana State head coach Paul Mainieri found himself doing something he never does—and won’t do again anytime soon.

He rooted for Florida.

After his Tigers had beaten Oregon State, 6-1, earlier in the day to secure a spot in the College World Series finals, he hoped the Gators would do the same.

“I just think it’s an awesome thing that these two SEC schools get to play for a national championship,” Mainieri said Sunday. “Probably the only person that’s happier than (Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan) and I is Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the SEC.”

Behind yet another dominant performance from ace Alex Faedo, Florida defeated Texas Christian, 3-0, Saturday night to join LSU in the finals. The matchup ensures a Southeastern Conference school will win the national title. It also should provide some closure in the SEC race after Florida (50-19) and LSU (51-18) tied for the conference crown.

“It’s just like an SEC weekend—just more at stake,” LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “Both teams have great players, great pitchers, play really, really good defense. So both teams are here for a reason. And it’s going to be who goes out there and gets the job done.”

The Gators and Tigers met each other in the regular season in Gainesville, Fla., in March, and the Gators won the first two games before LSU salvaged the finale. Both teams have changed significantly since then, however. LSU has benefited from the emergence of outfielder Zach Watson, who leads the CWS with eight hits; catcher Michael Papierski, who homered from both sides of the plate in Saturday’s win; and freshman righthander Zack Hess, who has been untouchable as the Tigers’ closer in Omaha.

The Gators, meanwhile, figured out their bullpen, thanks to Michael Byrne’s seizing of the closer’s role (18 saves) and Tyler Dyson’s stingy relief outings down the stretch. While Florida doesn’t have the offensive depth of LSU, the Gators have found ways to score just enough in support of one of the premier rotations in the country.

“I’ve always said it’s not who you play in your league, it’s when you play them,” O’Sullivan said. “Because we all go through ups and downs . . . Obviously we’re both different clubs. They’re probably a little deeper offensively than us. But we both played great defense. I know Paul likes to be aggressive on the basepaths and they hit a ton, so we’ll have to do a good job there.

“It’s going to come down to who executes. I don’t think the weekend in March has anything to do with what’s going to happen here in the next couple of days.”

With both teams playing into Saturday, pitching rotations aren’t lined up like they would be during a regular season weekend series. LSU will start senior righthander Russell Reynolds in Monday’s game. Senior lefthander Jared Poche’, who became LSU’s all-time winningest pitcher with a win over Florida State, will get the start Tuesday. Should there be a third game, Mainieri said the Tigers will start ace righthander Alex Lange on four day’s rest.

As for Florida, O’Sullivan joked in Sunday’s press conference that he wished the finals were on Tuesday-Thurday so he could bring back Faedo. While he didn’t rule out Faedo pitching out of the bullpen, the Gators will likely be without their ace. On Monday, they’ll start hard-throwing sophomore righthander Brady Singer, who held Louisville to one run and struck out nine in seven innings in his last start. Either Dyson or Byrne, depending on Monday’s game, will get the start Tuesday. If necessary, righthander Jackson Kowar is in line for Wednesday.

Whoever gets the ball, both teams should be quite familiar with their opponent.

“I think the fact that we’re playing each other is going to ease a lot of the anxiety for the players, and I think you’ll see good baseball,” Mainieri said. “I hope both teams make the plays. I hope both teams throw strikes. I hope it’s a good, crisp game where a couple of hits or an at-bat here or there determine the outcome of the game.

“There’s no hiding the fact what we’re playing for. Both of us want to take that trophy home with us.”