Now that the wait is over, it’s time for baseball again at Alex Box Stadium. LSU found out which foes are headed to Baton Rouge for NCAA Tournament regional play Monday morning, and equally as important, the Tigers learned that they are a top-8 national seed.
That means if LSU (43-16) takes care of business at home this weekend and next, the path to the 2012 College World Series never strays from the cozy confines of the Box.
The Tigers’ quest begins at 7 p.m. Friday against UL-Monroe (31-28) and could feature a showdown or two with a former national champion.
The 64-team NCAA Tournament was unveiled Monday morning, with ULM, Oregon State and Belmont slotted for the LSU regional. No. 2 seed OSU (38-18) and No. 3 Belmont (39-22) will meet in the regional opener at 2 p.m. Friday.
As the Tigers players, coaches watched the selection show on TV Monday surrounded by family and fans, there was a roar of approval mixed with relief when LSU finally showed up as the No. 7 national seed.
SEC brethren Florida and South Carolina also garnered top-8 seeds. The Gators are the top overall seed and the Gamecocks are No. 8.
“I’ve had a couple of sleepless nights,” Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said. “I’ve been worried about this national seed business. You just never know what’s going to happen when they come out of these committee meetings.
“It was only typical. Let’s take it to the 9th inning here before we find out if we get the national seed. I will say I wasn’t surprised by any of the first six. All of them clearly deserved it. I thought it was going to come down to us and South Carolina. I felt that we deserved it over South Carolina having won the SEC.”
As nervous as Mainieri was, his players were a bit more relaxed.
That might’ve had to do with the different levels of anticipation between last spring when the Tigers watched the show not knowing whether they’d even get a bid and Monday when most of the drama was over the national seeding.
“It was awesome,” Mason Katz said of watching the tournament field unfold. “Last year the last memory I had was kicking the chair as I walked out of the room, so it’s a lot better than that. Waiting to see if you’re a national seed is a lot better than waiting to see if you’re even in the field.”
Added Austin Nola, “Once six (national seeds) came by, I was like ‘Man there’s only two more left.’ I thought for sure we have to have one locked up. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. What we’ve done, we can’t control any more. We’ve done everything on the field, everything we could. We’ve played our hardest and our best and it was up to the committee, so it was out of our control.”
Now the Tigers know exactly what lies ahead and the task begins with the in-state Warhawks, a surprise winner of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
ULM went 15-15 in the Sun Belt during the season, but comes to Baton Rouge hot with six wins in seven games. This is the third time LSU has hosted a regional in Mainieri’s six seasons. The first two times the 4 seed was from the SWAC: Texas Southern in 2008 and Southern in 2009.
“They swing the bats well,” Mainieri said. “Clearly they’re the very best 4 seed we’ll have faced. They’re a legitimately qualified team that is capable of beating anybody in our field. The worst thing we could possibly do is in any way take them lightly and that won’t happen.”
The Warhawks enter NCAA play with a .272 team batting average and a 4.28 team ERA. This is ULM’s first NCAA berth since 2000 when Smoke Laval guided the team to the LSU regional and a 1-2 showing, both losses to the Tigers.
It’s likely LSU will see a familiar face on the mound in Friday’s regional opener.
ULM left-hander Randy Zeigler spent the 2009 season with the Tigers, but appeared in only three games (3 IP) before his season ended when his elbow popped as he was warming up for a mid-week start. Zeigler needed elbow reconstruction surgery and opted to transfer to Bossier City Community College before resurfacing at ULM in 2011.
This spring, the Shreveport native was 5-6 with a 3.65 ERA.
“I loved Randy,” Mainieri said. “I thought he was a great pitcher and a great kid.
“I’m happy for him. He’s had a good career. There’s no animosity toward him and hopefully he has none towards us.”
One new wrinkle this year is that LSU will play the Friday night game instead of opening the regional, as has been the case every year since 1998.
Mainieri said the decision was made with the Tiger fans in mind because of what is forecast to be a hot and sticky day on Friday.
“We’re really doing that for the benefit of our fans so that they can sit and watch the game and be a little bit more comfortable and hopefully become more a part of the game, enthusiasm and passion-wise, as opposed to just trying to survive in the heat of the day,” Mainieri said.