Three Strikes: May 5

Strike One: Resurgence In The Bayou

Heading into the 2008 season, Paul Mainieri talked cautiously but optimistically about how nice it would be to end the Alex Box Stadium era at Louisiana State by hosting a regional. The Tigers had gotten a major talent infusion from the nation’s deepest recruiting class, so Mainieri’s musings were not outlandish, but the goal did seem like a longshot. As recently as April 19, when LSU was 23-16 overall and 6-11 in the Southeastern Conference, it seemed like the Tigers might have a hard time just getting to a regional, nevermind hosting one.

But two weeks later, LSU finds itself perched atop the SEC’s Western Division and ranked in the Baseball America top 25 for the first time since late March of 2006. The Tigers have swept back-to-back conference series for the first time in a decade, and both have come against ranked opponents. And with a strong Ratings Percentage Index (23rd) and a manageable closing stretch (home against Mississippi State and at Auburn), all of a sudden that dream of hosting a regional doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

"Everything’s kind of coming together at the right time for us," Mainieri said. "With seven games remaining, if we can continue to play good ball–I know a lot of people thought it was a pipe dream not too long ago that we could host a regional in the last year of the Box, but I think it’s not so much of a pipe dream now. It would be neat to do it one more time in the old Box."

Mainieri joked that he was hoping the Tigers would remain unranked all season and sneak up on some people in the postseason, but flying under the radar is tricky when you’ve won nine straight, including sweeps against South Carolina and Kentucky and midweek wins against local rivals Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette. It’s hard to point to any single root cause for LSU’s success, which is probably itself the biggest reason for its success: players from all over the roster have contributed.

Lefthanders Ryan Verdugo (7-2, 3.26) and Blake Martin (7-4, 4.42) have given the Tigers a reliable one-two punch atop the weekend rotation, which allows LSU to use versatile senior righthander Jared Bradford as the bullpen anchor, where he can impact multiple games in the course of a weekend. Bradford proved his value in that role this weekend, appearing in all three games at Kentucky and working an economical, scoreless seven innings. With a quality sinker/slider repertoire and all the intangibles a coach could ask for, it’s no wonder Mainieri likens Bradford’s value to that of Aaron Heilman when Mainieri was at Notre Dame.

Verdugo has learned to pound the strike zone with a three-pitch mix after struggling with his command early in the year. Martin, who transferred to LSU after Birmingham-Southern went from Division I to D-III in 2006, has recovered nicely from hip surgery that caused him to miss all of 2007, and Mainieri said he’s pitched better than his numbers indicate. Both of those lefties compete and have a quality three-pitch mix.

In the lineup, the Tigers have three freshmen starting at key spots: shortstop D.J. LeMahieu (.325/.378/.450), center fielder Leon Landry (.277/.315/.426 with 10 stolen bases) and catcher Micah Gibbs (.323/.404/.430). Gibbs has been the biggest surprise: not a heralded piece of LSU’s recruiting bonanza, Gibbs was forced to sit out his senior year of high school after moving so his mother (a nurse) would not have to commute an hour and a half each way to work. He has wrested the starting catcher job away from incumbent Sean Ochinko thanks to his ability to shut down opposing running games and take charge of the pitching staff, as well as his knack for timely hits.

But the Tigers have gotten timely hits from all over their roster. Powerful lefthanded-hitting first baseman Matt Clark, who leads the team with 16 home runs, did not play in the first two games against Kentucky because the Wildcats deployed two lefthanded starters, but he came back Sunday to deliver a walk-off two-run homer in the ninth. Even when they don’t start, players like Ochinko and junior infielder Chris McGee have come off the bench to make things happen. In all, 13 different players have started at least 10 games for LSU, and the team’s confidence is soaring at the right time.

"When you’re getting contributions from a lot of different guys, it really makes it a lot more fun for everybody," Mainieri said. "The more you play, as each week goes by, your kids start to believe they can play with anybody."

Strike Two: The 64-Team Question

Mediocrity is running roughshod over college baseball in 2008, which means that every week the postseason landscape alters considerably. In fact, the rapidly shifting power dynamics have already rendered last week’s NCAA tournament field projection obsolete. Here’s a look at some teams whose fate would be dramatically different in a regional projection released this week:

Stock Down:

• Florida Atlantic was a bubble team that got the nod a week ago, but the Owls’ at-large chances were likely smashed this weekend in the Big Easy, where New Orleans swept them out of town.

• Southern California got the benefit of the doubt last week thanks to a tough early schedule and a favorable slate down the stretch, but the Trojans were swept at home by Washington in a series they simply had to win. Their regional chances are out the window with a recent 2-8 run.

• Oregon State was projected as a No. 1 seed and a regional host thanks to its robust RPI and quality series wins against Arizona, Arizona State, Pepperdine and Georgia, but the Beavers blew that opportunity and even slid toward the NCAA tournament bubble by losing four in a row against Gonzaga and Washington State.

• Stick a fork in Oklahoma. The Sooners looked to have a good shot at regionals thanks to upcoming series against the underbelly of the Big 12, Kansas and Kansas State. But the Jayhawks swept OU in three games this weekend, and the Sooners have lost six of their last eight weekend series. Baylor, however, lost a series to Texas, which means the Big 12 is looking more and more like a five-bid league.

• Arkansas dropped a must-win series at home against Alabama, which will likely make it hard for the Razorbacks to make the SEC or NCAA tournaments.

Stock Up:

• New Orleans has won nine straight, including a sweep against FAU and a midweek win at Southern Mississippi. The Privateers also have two midweek wins apiece against LSU and Alabama and one against Tulane, helping them construct a strong RPI (33). Even if UNO does not catch Louisiana-Monroe to win the Sun Belt crown, the Privateers look like a strong at-large candidate.

• Washington and Washington State each control their own fate, and they have two different problems to deal with. The Huskies have a good conference record (8-7) but a lousy RPI (98), while the Cougars have a strong RPI (21) but a flimsy conference mark (5-9). The two will meet this weekend at Washington in a series that will help sort out this mess. Wazzu finishes its three-game set with Oregon State tonight.

• Vanderbilt swept a road series at Tennessee to put itself back into the hosting discussion. With Kentucky sliding and no West Coast team stepping up, it seems like the host site we had given to Oregon State is likely to go to a third SEC team, probably either Vandy or LSU. That is, unless both of those teams host and leave South Carolina out in the cold—both did win head-to-head series against the Gamecocks.

• North Carolina State stands to gain from Coastal Carolina dropping a big series at Georgia Tech. The Chanticleers don’t face many significant tests in the Big South, so a late-season series against a good ACC team like Tech could be used as a barometer by the selection committee. If Coastal loses its No. 1 seed, N.C. State would seem to be in line to pick it up, and potentially to host a regional as well. With No. 2 North Carolina also likely to be a regional host at the USA Baseball Training Complex in Cary, it seems unlikely  the committee would put two of its 16 regionals in Wake County, N.C., but the Wolfpack is on its way to earning a regional host spot.

Strike Three: Not So Fast, My Friend

The first spot in the NCAA tournament was scheduled to be filled this weekend in the best-of-three Ivy League championship series between Columbia and Dartmouth, but foul weather in New Hampshire caused the series to be postponed. A doubleheader will be played Tuesday, and if necessary the decisive game will follow Wednesday.

Dartmouth, the only Ivy League team with an overall record above .500 (24-15), is the favorite, but both teams posted 15-5 records in conference play. The Big Green boasts a solid lineup led by one of the Ivy’s best players, athletic senior outfielder Damon Wright (.399/.466/.688 with eight homers and 38 RBIs). On the  mound, Dartmouth is led by competitive senior lefthander Russell Young (5-3, 3.43).

"It’s going to be tough. They’ve got a strong offensive unit," Columbia coach Brett Boretti said. "It’s got the making of a really good series."

Heading into the season, Dartmouth and Columbia were picked to finish last in their respective divisions, and the Lions got off to a 4-14 start in nonconference play. But they learned a lot and even gained confidence from competitive series losses at Duke and Pepperdine, which helped them split four-game series at Georgia Southern and Liberty.

Seniors like Henry Perkins (.370/.438/.562) and Noah Cooper (.352/.438/.441) have mixed well with younger players like freshman Nick Cox (.355/.403/.506) and Jason Banos (.358/.437/.547) to give Columbia a solid lineup. The pitching staff lacks big-time power arms, but junior righthander Joe Scarlata (4-4, 6.71) has gotten stronger the farther he’s gotten from Tommy John surgery, and he will match up with Young in the opener.

"We knew we had a good group coming back," Boretti said. "The young guys have done a great job coming in and complementing the veteran group. We played a tough schedule early, but we did OK on our spring break trip. There’s a fine line between making it real hard and losing confidence and making it a tough one where you’re getting some wins and doing some things. Especially from an offensive standpoint, being able to have some success and taste it is so important."

The battle-tested Lions now hope to get a taste of the postseason. First, they’ll have to get past a Dartmouth club that has been the team to beat in the Ivy League all season.