Image credit: Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images
OMAHA—Coach Jay Johnson stood before his team in January, a month before Opening Day and asked the 2023 LSU Tigers a simple question: “What do you want to accomplish?”
The room got quiet. The Tigers were on their way to being the most hyped team in college baseball history. They would be ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25 and had the projected No. 1 overall draft pick on their roster in center fielder Dylan Crews. They were coming off a whirlwind offseason that saw them add All-Americans Paul Skenes and Tommy White through the transfer portal, the No. 1 traditional recruiting class, pitching coach Wes Johnson, who was hired away from the Minnesota Twins, and recruiting coordinator Josh Jordan, the 2018 Assistant Coach of the Year.
One team must be ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls every year. But no preseason No. 1 team had before dealt with the confluence of LSU’s superstar talent, the excitement of transactions previously only seen in professional free agency and a No. 1 recruiting class all coming together at one of the sport’s bluest bloods.
In that moment, the Tigers had to decide who they were. And it was Crews, the reigning SEC player of the year, who spoke up.
“We want to win a national championship,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Johnson asked.
The Tigers were sure. They had all come to LSU with that goal in mind. They had gotten there in different ways. Some, like Crews and first baseman Tre’ Morgan, had committed to Paul Mainieri and his staff. Others had committed to Johnson after he took over the program following Mainieri’s retirement in 2021. Some had arrived as freshmen. Others came through the transfer portal or from junior college.
But to come to LSU, no matter how you get to Alex Box Stadium, is to commit to excellence. Atop the right field wall stands a full-size billboard called “The Intimidator” that commemorates the Tigers’ national championships. A statue of legendary head coach Skip Bertman stands outside the stadium and plaques of the program’s All-Americans line the walls of the Box. The expectations and weight of that history are part of the experience.
So, Johnson went about outlining how the Tigers would go from that meeting, a month before Opening Day, to lifting the trophy in Omaha five months later. The outline included things big and small, from having a selfless attitude to a mentality strong enough to withstand the inevitable failure of baseball. It was about how to attack the game in all facets and continually get better.
For five months, the Tigers stuck to that plan. It carried them through 12 straight weeks as the top-ranked team in the country. It helped them get past consecutive losing weekends in May against Auburn and Mississippi State to still go into the final day of the regular season with a chance to win the SEC title. It carried them through sweeps in regionals and super regionals to advance to the College World Series for the first time since 2017. In Omaha, it helped them push through the loser’s bracket, beating on consecutive nights Tennessee righthander Drew Beam and Wake Forest righthanders Seth Keener and Rhett Lowder, a trio of pitchers with All-American-caliber stuff and moxie.
“These guys have stuck to (the plan) every single day,” Johnson said after beating Wake Forest to advance to the championship series against Florida.
The Tigers didn’t abandon their approach in the finals, either. Righthander Ty Floyd dominated in Game 1, striking out 17 batters in eight innings, and DH Cade Beloso hit a home run in the 11th inning to power LSU to a 4-3 victory. Game 2 didn’t go their way at all, as the Gators routed the Tigers, 24-4, setting a CWS record for most runs scored in a game.
But by Monday, the Tigers had moved on. There was one game left in the season, one game to win the national championship they had been eyeing all year. Again, the question from Johnson before the game was simple: “Are you in?” This time, he didn’t wait for a response. He knew the Tigers were ready.
LSU didn’t hold anything back. After Florida took a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning, LSU responded with six runs in the second, knocking out starter Jac Caglianone. The Tigers never looked back, rolling to an 18-4 rout. Righthander Thatcher Hurd delivered a quality start, holding Florida to two runs on two hits and two walks in six innings, striking out seven. Crews and White both had four-hit nights as the LSU lineup piled up 24 hits and drew eight walks. As badly as Florida beat LSU in Game 2, the Tigers returned it in the decisive third game of the series.
The game ended with the Tigers dogpiling on the infield of Charles Schwab Field. They were national champions, fulfilling the team’s immense promise. They are just the second team in the 21st century to win the national championship after being ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25, joining 2019 Vanderbilt.
“I just can’t be more proud of my guys and the way that we came out all year and just competed and fought through adversity,” shortstop Jordan Thompson said. “When guys went down, guys stepped up. That just speaks about the character about our team and the way that we just handled our business and own our deal every single day.”
“I feel like almost every box was checked off except that national championship box,” Crews said. “And we all knew this was going to be our last game here. And to finally say that I’m a national champion, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. And I feel all boxes are checked off now.”
LSU’s national championship is the program’s seventh and first since 2009. With the title, LSU passes Texas for sole possession of second place all time. Only Southern California has won more titles and only one of its 12 titles (1998) has come since LSU won its first.
By LSU standards, it’s been a relatively long time since that 2009 national championship and its fans were hungry for more. But Johnson said in the two years he’s spent in Baton Rouge he’s worked to avoid thinking about the weight of that history.
He never shied away from the program’s expectations, however.
“I know all that legacy and tradition,” he said. “I’m so honored to be part of that. I really wanted it for these guys because they’ve done everything that I’ve asked them to do and set the standard better than you could possibly do. And that’s why this is important. Not just because we’re national champions, but because we’ve been national champions every day of this thing.”
All year, the Tigers played with the sport’s biggest target on their backs. They took on all comers and passed just about every test. Crews came into the season regarded as the best player in the country and went on to repeat as SEC player of the year and win the Golden Spikes Award after hitting .426/.567/.713 with 18 home runs. Skenes took off after transferring from Air Force and focusing exclusively on pitching for the first time in his career. He was named CWS most outstanding player and produced perhaps the best season for a pitcher in the 21st century, going 13-2, 1.69 with an SEC record 209 strikeouts and 20 walks in 122.2 innings. White hit 24 home runs and drove in 105 runs, living up to the incredible expectations after transferring from North Carolina State, where he was the Freshman of the Year in 2022. Beloso, Floyd and Morgan built on their legacies at LSU, while freshmen like Gavin Guidry, Griffin Herring and Jared Jones began to build their own.
LSU has had some incredible teams and players throughout its history. Skenes joins Ben McDonald as the program’s greatest pitcher. Crews has a strong case to be the program’s greatest hitter. Collectively, the 2023 Tigers will forever be remembered among the program’s best.
For Crews, it was a storybook ending to his college career.
“It was a struggle of mine as a kid to be where my feet are,” Crews said. “I was always looking ahead, into the future. But when I stepped in the locker room this year and saw all the talent and all the group of guys that we had, I thought, it was my last year, it’s so important for me to be where my feet are and enjoy these moments.
“To go out on top a national champion and to cap off my career, it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
On Monday, the Tigers had no problem living in the moment. After the game, as all of Johnson’s teams have done after victories, they took a team photo. He does it so that his teams learn to value winning and to emphasize the one-game mindset he asks them to employ.
So, after the dogpile and trophy presentation, the Tigers gathered along the first base line for their standard team picture. Just like the 2023 Tigers, however, this picture is anything but standard. Their smiles are wide, and their new trophy is front and center. This is the moment they planned for five months ago and the one they worked so hard to get to ever since.