Dream Matchup

OMAHA—Before Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri left for Omaha, his wife asked him who he’d like to play in the College World Series Finals if the Tigers were fortunate enough to win their bracket.

“I said—without hesitation—Texas,” Mainieri recalled Sunday. “I said that simply because I thought it would have been a great matchup. I would relish the opportunity for our team to play against Texas, because it’s two great programs with great history and great tradition . . . The reality is that all of us who love college baseball know that LSU and Texas represent a lot of great things.”

Mainieri got his dream matchup, and the whole sport stands to benefit. When LSU and Texas play for the national championship in the best-of-three CWS Finals (which starts Monday at 7 p.m. ET), college baseball royalty will face college baseball royalty.

Only Southern California has won more titles than the Longhorns (six) and Tigers (five), and both have won in the current 64-team era (LSU in 2000, Texas in 2002 and ’05). The two programs have combined to win seven titles and make 22 CWS appearances in the last 20 years, but they have met just twice ever in Omaha, and never in the Finals.

In retrospect, it seems like LSU and Texas have been on a collision course all season. Both teams opened the year ranked among the nation’s top five teams. Both won regular-season championships in their ultra-competitive conferences, and both followed those titles by winning their conference tournaments. Neither team has lost a game in the NCAA tournament, and now the nation’s top-ranked team (LSU) will face the tournament’s No. 1 national seed (Texas).

“It’s a pretty unique matchup, the No. 1 seed versus No. 1 in the polls,” Mainieri said in the pre-Finals press conference, flanked on one side by three of his players and on the other by Texas coach Augie Garrido and three Longhorns.

“We’re the no. 1 seed,” Garrido interjected, “and the No. 1 seed hasn’t won here since 1999.”

“Well, there’s no reason to break that streak,” Mainieri retorted.

“We’ll try our hardest,” answered Garrido.

It was evident Sunday how much respect these programs have for each other, and how excited they are to play each other. Texas and LSU understand pressure and expectations the way few programs in college baseball do.

“When you’re at LSU, it’s Omaha or bust,” Tigers catcher Micah Gibbs said. “And once you get here, it’s kind of tough to show your face if you don’t win the trophy.”

Garrido echoed those sentiments, albeit in his own dry, semi-sarcastic manner.

“Unfortunately in Texas, second place just does get it, so finishing second will just be another disaster in a long line of disasters,” Garrido said.

As usual, Garrido had plenty of good one-liners Sunday, most having to do with his team’s habit of pulling out victories in frantic fashion. Texas has won games in Omaha on a walk-off walk, a walk-off homer, and a comeback from a 6-0 deficit. In regionals, the Longhorns needed 25 innings to beat Boston College and an eight-run ninth inning (capped by a walk-off grand slam) to beat Army.

“We’ve added a new assistant coach: David Copperfield,” Garrido quipped, referring to the television illusionist. “Somebody asked me yesterday if we were going to practice, and I said, ‘Practice? How the hell do you practice the way we win?'”

Then later: “So I’m ready to get with any television producer and do a baseball Survivor show,” Garrido said. “It’s about time to put a Division I reality show on TV, because we certainly have lived the script for it.”

The Longhorns talked plenty about how impressive LSU has been in the postseason, and justifiably so. The Tigers outscored their CWS opponents 32-11 in three games during bracket play, getting stellar hitting, sound pitching and error-free defense. On paper, LSU’s offense is far more powerful and explosive, but as Mainieri pointed out, the numbers are deceptive because of the way Texas’ Disch-Falk Field suppresses home runs. In a more hitter-friendly setting, UT’s physical hitters like Cameron Rupp, Kevin Keyes, Brandon Belt and Connor Rowe are very capable of going deep.

“Everybody talks about their sac bunts, but at the field they play at, they have to sac bunt a lot because they’re not going to hit the three-run home run very often,” Gibbs said. “Out here, they’re even six and six with sac bunts and home runs, so they’ve definitely shown they have the power.”

Added Mainieri, “I don’t really think our teams are that different, quite frankly.”

All the more reason to excited for this matchup. Not only are both teams very talented, but both are at full strength thanks to their 3-0 performances in bracket play. That means Texas ace Chance Ruffin will take on SEC pitcher of the year Louis Coleman on Monday, and both pitchers are just about fully rested.

All that remains is to convert the feverish anticipation into lasting memories.

“These kind of games are the games you remember for the rest of your life,” Ruffin said.