LSU rounding into title form in Omaha
OMAHA, Neb. -- If it's mid-June in Omaha, it usually means the jambalaya is simmering in a giant pot across the street from Rosenblatt Stadium, and the LSU fans are under a tent nearby drowning their sorrows. Not this year. The Tigers, after several dreary College World Series appearances in recent years, appear to have found, for lack of a better word, their swagger.
"Swagger sounds so cocky," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said late Monday night after his team clobbered Arkansas 9-1. "I just like to think the kids have a real strong self-confidence. But I don't want them to, like, walk around with arrogance where people get turned off with their attitude. I want them to believe they can do anything, beat anybody. Just don't tell anybody about it."
It was there for the crowd of 23,417 to see, except half of them were gone by the ninth inning because the Tigers made the game so lopsided. LSU has had great pitching and a solid defense for most of the season, and it showed again Monday. But when the Tigers get their bats going, it can get out of control.
When Blake Dean crushed a two-run home run to right field in a five-run sixth inning, it was snagged by a lone Razorbacks fan lost in a sea of purple and gold. The frustrated man threw the ball back onto the field, and by that time, coach Dave Van Horn no doubt felt like hurling something himself.
LSU scored eight of its nine runs with two outs, hit three home runs, and erupted for eight runs in two innings. Oh, and the Tigers' ace -- well, they have two of them -- was overpowering. And their defense turned in several stellar plays.
"They've got a great lineup," Van Horn said. "A solid, solid college lineup. And they've got a lot of ways they can beat you. They put together two innings, scored eight runs in two innings, and it happened real quick. Yeah, they've got some pop."
LSU is one win away from the best-of-three championship series. The Tigers have won five national championships, most recently in 2000 when the College World Series was decided by a single championship game following the double-elimination round. Last year, the Tigers reached the CWS but were eliminated (going 1-2). LSU went two-and-out in trips to the CWS in '03 and '04.
This team started 2009 under a vise grip, with a preseason No. 1 ranking and a brand-new ballpark. Mainieri wondered then how his team would handle it.
We beat Rice last weekend in the super regional, and Rice is an excellent team. And I really don't think we played that well. And I told the guys, 'Imagine if we can put it all together what we're capable of doing?'
--LSU coach Paul Mainieri
Louis Coleman was brimming. LSU's senior right-hander, who threw 17 pitches in relief just two nights earlier, struck out seven in six innings while yielding just one run. When the Tigers' SEC rival put runners on second and third in the third inning, Coleman got out of it with a pair of strikeouts.
"He was locating well," Arkansas first baseman Andy Wilkins said. "He threw on both sides, and it caused us problems up and down."
Coleman knew it was a good night in the bottom of the fifth, when first baseman Sean Ochinko knocked down a hopper off his chest, grabbed it out of the dirt, then dove and tagged first before a sprinting Justin Cox reached. The game was still relatively close -- the Razorbacks were within three -- and had a runner in scoring position. A few minutes later, LSU's sixth-inning outburst was in motion.
The Tigers have won 12 straight, and the wins have come from so many different places: from seniors, from freshmen. In between Coleman's dominance Monday night, freshmen Mikie Mahtook and Austin Nola hit home runs. It's the perfect mix, Dean says.
"Mahtook and the rest of the young guys bring the fire," he said, "while the veterans tend to go with the flow. When [Mahtook] hits a home run, he almost takes your arm off. As veterans, we try to calm them down."
And Mainieri keeps them loose. He decided to take the team to Omaha early this year, arriving in time Thursday to get a practice in at Rosenblatt before the rain.
"I think that helped the guys kind of get their feet on the ground a little bit," Mainieri said. "It was the best [batting practice] we took all year. The guys were so relaxed and calm and focused, and I said to myself, 'Man, I think we've got a chance to really turn it on out here.'
"We beat Rice last weekend in the super regional, and Rice is an excellent team. And I really don't think we played that well. And I told the guys, 'Imagine if we can put it all together what we're capable of doing?'"
The Tigers are imagining. And Arkansas is still reeling.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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