Coleman's return leads LSU to Omaha

BATON ROUGE, La. -- As he made his way around the new Alex Box Stadium for a prolonged victory lap with his teammates Saturday, it seemed as if LSU senior pitcher Louis Coleman had hundreds of proud parents in the stands who couldn't wait for their turn to gush over him.

And as Coleman spoke to reporters about pitching in his final game at LSU, the Tigers' 5-3 win over Rice in the Baton Rouge Super Regional, he nearly brought one grown man to tears -- his coach.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri tries not to play favorites, but Coleman, who has been around the program long enough to contribute to its resurrection since a disappointing 2006 season, has made that particularly difficult. Coleman's decision to put Major League Baseball on hold so he could return to LSU for his senior season made a lasting impression on the coach hired to restore the Tigers' fading glory.

"I'll remember these conversations I had with him last summer 'til the day I die," Mainieri said. "When he decided he was going to come back, I said, 'Louis, it's going to make all the difference in the world with our team. It's the final piece of the puzzle for this next year's team. We're going to go back to Omaha because of you.'"

And they are.

After a gritty performance by Coleman in the second game against Rice, LSU will face Virginia on Saturday in the College World Series. In many ways, Coleman's ascension at LSU has mirrored the program's rise back to Omaha. As Coleman's role in the pitching rotation became murky, so did LSU's place among college baseball's elite. But as he solidified himself as one of the best, not coincidentally, so did the Tigers.

Coleman, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander, began his junior season without a clear role in the pitching rotation after getting lost in the shuffle in 2007. But as the Tigers began their improbable 23-game winning streak en route to Omaha last season, Mainieri found himself a sensational closer. Coleman pitched in 23 games (three starts) and recorded an 8-1 mark and a team-best 1.95 ERA in 55.1 innings with two saves, 10 walks and 62 strikeouts.

He was drafted last year by the Washington Nationals in the 14th round of the MLB draft, but could sense LSU was on the brink of something special. Coleman saw a confidence in this team that made him think twice about leaving. The decision has paid off for the Tigers, as Coleman has developed into the No. 2 starter (after Anthony Ranaudo) who will give the Tigers one of the most formidable pitching duos in Omaha.

"It was the greatest decision I've ever made in my life," Coleman said. "I wouldn't change it for the world. God has blessed me with the ability to stay healthy for an entire year and get back to Omaha. … To be able to come back for a senior year and go back to Omaha is something special and something I know that I won't forget, along with the other 24 guys."

Coleman was voted this year's SEC Pitcher of the Year by the league's head coaches. Catcher Micah Gibbs said Coleman's most noticeable difference this season has been his ability to throw strikes in the clutch.

"He's had the stuff from the very beginning, he's just now tapping into it," Gibbs said. "The competitiveness he has is outstanding. Every single time he goes out, it seems like it's a real close ball game and he somehow pulls us out of it. It's awesome."

Coleman enters the College World Series with a 13-2 record and 2.76 ERA. He has 124 strikeouts and has walked just 19 batters. Gibbs said Coleman's focus is remarkable.

"He takes practice like a game," Gibbs said. "I remember facing him in fall ball and it seemed like he was out there in Omaha. Once he gets on the mound, he's so zoned in. Off the field, though, he's just another guy. He's real relaxed, and that's the thing I love about him. You know that once he crosses the foul line, he's a totally different guy and he's going to be the most competitive person out there."

It has had a trickle-down effect on his teammates. Coleman has taken freshman reliever Matty Ott under his wing. Ott, who sealed the win in the final inning against Rice, said he is over Coleman's house just about every day, "hanging out."

"He just taught me the mental aspect of the game, that it's going to get tough sometimes, and you've got to battle through it," Otto said. "But if you work hard and battle through it, you're going to be successful most of the time."

And Coleman has been, which is just one reason it's hard for a coach not to play favorites.

"Every time he's been given the ball, he's just given the greatest effort any human being could possibly give for his school," Mainieri said. "He's certainly going to go down in history with me in my coaching career as one of my all-time favorite kids."

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at espn.hd@hotmail.com. Check out her ACC football blog.