Commentary

Predicted to finish fifth in SEC West, Tigers find path to Omaha

Originally Published: June 13, 2008
By David Albright | ESPN.com

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Michael Hollander had waited his whole life for this moment.

So when LSU pounded its way to a 21-7 win over UC Irvine on Monday night in the deciding game of the Baton Rouge Super Regional, the third baseman made sure to soak up every last ounce of the simultaneous postgame celebrations -- one to mark the school's first trip to the College World Series since 2004, and one to say a final goodbye to historic Alex Box Stadium.

[+] EnlargeMichael Hollander
Crystal LoGiudice/US PRESSWIREAfter clinching a CWS berth, Michael Hollander shows his appreciation to the LSU faithful.

Hollander was one of the first players to arrive in front of the pitcher's mound after the game's final out at 10:01 p.m. as more than 30 players eventually created a massive tiger pile. Then the senior from Mandeville, La., led his teammates on an impromptu lap around the Box to high-five fans and thank them for their unwavering support.

Along the way he picked up a gold LSU flag and some purple and gold beads with a few mini Bengal tigers. It soon ended up draped around his neck. The new additions did a nice job of complementing his equal-parts white and dirt-colored No. 7 uniform.

"I've been a big fan of LSU for as long as I can remember," Hollander said. "[My family] sat in [section] L2, and I have a bunch of memories here and it's great to be a part of it. It's something I'll never forget, and just to be a part of it is unbelievable.

"The only thing that could get better than this is winning the whole thing."

A month ago, that same sentiment would have applied to the SEC tournament. That is what's truly remarkable as the Tigers (48-17-1) now prepare for their CWS opener on Sunday against No. 2 national seed North Carolina (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

To understand just how far this LSU baseball team has risen to reach college baseball's holy land in Omaha, you have to truly understand just how far the Tigers fell before and during this supernatural season.

Mention the LSU Fighting Tigers and most people think of football, and who could blame them? The football team is the current BCS champion and has won two of the past five national titles.

[+] EnlargeDogpile
Crystal LoGiudice/US PRESSWIRELSU returns to Omaha for the first time since 2004 and will play North Carolina on Sunday night.

But before this gridiron revival, the Bayou Bengals were known first and foremost for their diamond dominance. Skip Bertman led the program to five national championships (1991, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 2000) in one decade.

Such success can spoil a fan base. And create very high expectations.

Bertman retired after the 2001 season, and LSU made two more trips to the CWS (2003, 2004) with replacing-the-legend coach Smoke Laval, but the Tigers were sent home from Omaha without a win after each trip. Then came 2006, when LSU wasn't invited to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years.

That precipitated Laval's departure, and current head coach and former LSU player Paul Mainieri was brought on before the 2007 season to restore the baseball glory. Only the coach-after-the-coach-who-replaced-the-legend's first season ended with the Tigers (29-26-1) missing the SEC tournament for the first time since 1984.

"It's tough to talk about last year's team because we won more games than a lot of people thought we would," Hollander said. "And we worked just as hard. I would have loved to see that team go to Omaha just as much as this team."

Instead, back-to-back postseasonless years made LSU an also-ran in its own conference. So much so that the Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the SEC (wait for it) West. Not fifth in the entire SEC, but fifth in their division.

Mainieri responded to the preseason prediction by saying he wouldn't be surprised by anything his 2008 club did, including earning a trip to play in Omaha.

"I'm sure a lot of people thought I was ready for the loony-tune farm with that comment, but I always believed we had the talent and I believed we had high-character kids," Mainieri said. "We had a great fall practice, and when we were picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll, our kids took that as a real challenge."

[+] EnlargeMatt Clark
Crystal LoGiudice-US PRESSWIREMatt Clark is hitting .524 with four home runs and nine RBIs in the postseason.

LSU shot out of the gate with an 11-1 start, but that was against the likes of several northern schools making spring trips down south. Once SEC play began, the Tigers lost four of their first six series and stood at 23-16-1 after a 10-10 tie to Georgia on April 20.

Then it clicked, and suddenly LSU couldn't lose -- to the tune of an SEC-record 23-game win streak that started at Tulane on April 22 and continued all the way through an 11-4 win over Southern Miss to clinch the Baton Rouge Regional on June 1.

During that perfect stretch, the Tigers overcame deficits in 17 games to keep the streak alive. As a team, they hit .324 with 42 home runs while outscoring their opponents 219-101.

Two of the hottest bats during the run belonged to sophomore DH Blake Dean (.424, 11 HRs, 34 RBIs) and junior first baseman Matt Clark (.392, 12 HRs, 39 RBIs).

The streak finally ended in Game 1 of the Baton Rouge Super Regional when UC Irvine posted a relatively easy 11-5 win Saturday night. Dean went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, and LSU was kept in check by Anteaters starter Scott Gorgen.

"The streak was great, and I wish we could have won 30 in a row, that would have really been something to talk about," Mainieri said. "We're never happy losing a game, but once we lost the ballgame, I just told the kids after the game that the idea is to win two out of three and it doesn't matter what order they come in."

Having lost the first game, LSU was out of chances and faced elimination in Game 2 against UCI. And the Tigers trailed 7-2 into the eighth but scored an improbable seven runs before their last six outs to force the third-and-deciding game.

The legendary Bertman called it the best comeback win in the 25 years he's been coaching and watching games at the Box.

"We had 17 comebacks during the streak, and I think that definitely set the table for something like [Sunday] night," Hollander said. "We knew we could do it. I don't know if it's past experiences or just the simple thing of believing. I'm not sure what encompasses a team to have such belief, but we definitely have that belief, and I think it's carried us."

[+] EnlargeRyan Schimpf
Crystal LoGiudice/US PRESSWIRERyan Schimpf and the LSU offense hope to keep the good times rolling in Omaha.

After LSU scored five runs in the ninth to secure the comeback win, the Tigers picked up where they left off and plated six runs in the first inning on Monday to set the tone for what ended up being a 14-run win, 21-7.

And with that series-clinching win comes the school's 14th trip to Omaha, which brings a whole new stage and a whole new set of pressures.

As raucous and rowdy as 8,000-plus fans at the Box can be, the lights get hotter at Rosenblatt Stadium when the size of the crowd triples and the entire college baseball world is watching every play of every game.

"I think we've experienced some tough times, and we know how to deal with it," Dean said. "It's going to be a tough situation where we're going to have to go out and play every day, and whatever presents itself we have to overcome it.

"That's the whole reason I came here, to contribute to this and to go to Omaha, and I think I've done that. But everyone on this team does something in their own part to come out here every day and get us a win."

LSU has now won 25 of its last 26 games, but if it is going to have success in Omaha, it will have to get good pitching.

In six NCAA tournament games, the staff ERA is a bloated 5.33 when compared to the 3.89 mark prior to the NCAAs. Starters Ryan Verdugo, Jared Bradford and Blake Martin have been very average at times. Two bright spots have been relievers Louis Coleman and Austin Ross. In six innings of work in two games, Coleman hasn't allowed a run and has surrendered only three hits, and Ross has thrown five innings in two games and hasn't allowed a run on just three hits.

But when the offense is hitting .357 and scoring at an 11.8 runs-per-game clip, it tends to hide some of the mound misery.

Clark leads the Tigers' NCAA hit parade with his .524 average, four home runs and nine RBIs. Right along for the ride are second baseman Ryan Schimpf (.524, 2 HRs, 9 RBIs) and Dean (.480, 4 HRs, 13 RBIs). "When you get this far, everything needs to happen -- defense, pitching, hitting -- and I think we're doing a good job of putting all of those together right now," Hollander said. "That's obviously why we've won so many games these past couple of weeks."

And it's why many LSU fans will be making the 1,086-mile trip from southern Louisiana to eastern Nebraska this week -- one that probably came as a surprise to even the most ardent of college baseball followers.

Except one. "I didn't predict we would go to Omaha; I said I wouldn't be surprised if we did," Mainieri said. "And I'm not surprised right now and I'm not surprised by anything these kids do. They are living proof that if you dream it, it can come true."

Just ask Michael Hollander.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.