LSU living up to expectations … so far

June, 6, 2009
06/06/09
10:10
PM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- When classes began in August and the LSU baseball team met for the first time, coach Paul Mainieri told his players they were good enough to get to the College World Series.

On Saturday, after beating Rice 5-3 in the Baton Rouge Super Regional to advance to Omaha, LSU looked good enough to win it all.

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LSU WIN
AP Photo/Bill Feig With a win over Rice, LSU advanced to the College World Series in Omaha for the second straight season.

Behind eight innings of gritty pitching by Louis Coleman, a strong defensive effort and a few clutch hits, LSU left no doubt that it was the better team in the best-of-three series. With the win, the Tigers advanced to the College World Series for the second straight season.

This year, though, that's exactly what they were supposed to do.

The Tigers' season started with promise -- there were plenty of veterans on the roster, they had been to the College World Series, they had a new stadium and a No. 1 preseason ranking. On Saturday, the Tigers proved they could live up to the lofty expectations that were once the norm in Alex Box Stadium.

"These kids have been under the microscope all year, and a lot has been expected of them," Mainieri said. "They are so remarkable in their consistency, their poise, their composure and how they've been able to handle these expectations. I know that was one of the big questions before the season began: How would these kids handle the expectations? Well, I think the answer is very clear now."

Things have changed in Baton Rouge.

"Last year, halfway through the season we were just hoping to make the SEC tournament, and we made it to Omaha," said second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, whose leadoff double set the tone for the game. "This year, I think we expected to get to Omaha and I think our goal is to go a lot deeper. We said that from Day 1."

Coaching, pitching and defense has been the key for this year's team, and this best-of-three series was no exception. Third baseman Derek Helenihi drove in two runs and hit a solo home run in the sixth for the final score of the game. Coleman allowed nine hits, struck out five batters and held Rice scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings to preserve the lead. Matty Ott pitched the ninth and struck out Brock Holt with a runner on base for his 16th save.

"I think they're good enough to win it," Rice coach Wayne Graham said of the Tigers' chances at the College World Series. "But when you get those eight teams there, it's hard to tell who is the best. … I think they are very competitive with anybody who will be there, particularly with their two great starters and relievers. These three pitchers are probably among the top 20 pitchers in the country. And they've got good left-handed hitters that can go both ways, both left and right. They've got a lot of ingredients."

And now they've got the experience.

Last year, only two people on the roster had been to Omaha before -- Mainieri and assistant coach Javi Sanchez.

"That's not a good thing," Mainieri said. "You want your players to be the ones that are comfortable. Now we've got a lot of guys that have been there already. … I just expect us to go there with a lot more comfort and consequently confidence."

Mainieri has been the catalyst for the program's turnaround.

"Skip [Bertman] brought me here to get the program back on line, the great tradition and history," Mainieri said, referring to the longtime LSU coach and former athletic director who hired him in 2006. "They had plans to build this beautiful ballpark, the administration we have now supports us unbelievably. We have so many assets going for us. There's no reason why we shouldn't be one of the premier programs in the country."

Considering LSU is heading to Omaha for the second straight year and the 15th time in the program's history, it still is.

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