A few different mantras have been intertwined throughout this bounce-back season for the LSU baseball team.
Approach every game the same and respect every opponent, but fear none.
Fitting maybe that the Tigers’ 2012 campaign arrives at its most important crossroads where both notions have to take a spot on center stage.
With a trip to the College World Series on the line, top-ranked LSU (46-16) takes the diamond this weekend in a best-of-three Super Regional series against Stony Brook (50-12), the ultimate Cinderella.
The Tigers and Seawolves get started at 11 a.m. Friday, with Game 2 slated for 11 a.m. Saturday and a third game, if necessary, at noon on Sunday. All three games are scheduled to be carried on ESPN2 and ESPN3.
For LSU, the goals are simple. Understand that Stony Brook is a formidable foe and grind away one game at a time instead of looking too far ahead.
Tigers coach Paul Mainieri has preached a sermon all week about just how good the Seawolves are.
“This is a legitimate team,” Mainieri said. “This is an SEC caliber team.”
Added junior first baseman/right fielder Mason Katz, “They’re not a no-name team coming in here. They’re on a hot streak and they’re a really good team. They’re not going to be intimidated by the atmosphere or the crowds.”
As much as it might benefit LSU to brace for Stony Brook, comparing the two teams’ history presents a major mismatch.
The Tigers are in their 25th NCAA Tournament, their eighth Super Regional and are seeking a 16th CWS berth. This is Stony Brook’s first Super Regional game after it won four regional games last week in Coral Gables, Fla. – the last three in elimination games.
LSU has been a national brand name in college baseball since the mid-1980s. The Seawolves jumped to Division I in 2000.
If the crowd at Alex Box Stadium for Friday’s opener exceeds 5,000 that will top the attendance at Stony Brook’s 62 games all season.
|Austin Nola: 'We see it as two even teams getting ready to play.'|
Sense a trend here?
As much as it might make sense to paint this Super Regional as David vs. Goliath, the LSU players aren’t buying it.
The handful of Tigers who played in the Cape Cod League last summer are familiar with the talent the Seawolves possess because many of their players also played on the Cape.
“We see it as two even teams getting ready to play,” LSU senior shortstop Austin Nola said. “It helps that you know the caliber of guys they have. They’re hard-nosed guys who play the game the right way and that’s something we have to be ready to come out and match.”
Yeah, as it turns out, this underdog can play a little baseball.
The Seawolves are the only team in the country with 50 wins right now and they cruised to both the America East regular-season and tournament championships.
Pegged as the No. 4 seed at Miami, Stony Brook thumped the Hurricanes, lost to Central Florida and then surged back with wins against Missouri State and twice against UCF. In five regional games, the Seawolves scored 50 runs – 10 or more in every game but the loss (9-8).
Stony Brook comes into this weekend with a .336 team batting average, paced by leadoff hitter and center fielder Travis Jankowski’s .417. He also leads the Wolves with 75 runs, 10 triples and 36 stolen bases (42 attempts). Third baseman Willy Carmona was the Most Outstanding Player of the regional and sports a .393 average with team-bests in home runs (12) and RBIs (70).
|Brandon McNitt: Stony Brook sophomore will start the Super Regional opener|
On the mound, seniors Tyler Johnson (11-1, 2.13 ERA) and Evan Stecko-Haley (7-3, 3.47) and sophomore Brandon McNitt (8-3, 2.69) lead a staff that owns a 3.06 ERA and are limiting opponents to a .239 batting average.
McNitt will get the start in the opener against LSU’s freshman Austin Nola, with Johnson slated to go Saturday vs. Tigers’ ace Kevin Gausman.
LSU’s pitching setup is the same that Mainieri used in regional play. Nola’s unflappable nature and the notion of Gausman getting a full week of rest are at the heart of his decision.
|Aaron Nola: Freshman will get the start in Game 1 of the Super Regional|
“Aaron Nola is not your typical freshman,” Mainieri said. “He is inordinately composed, calm and confident. Our team has an awful lot of confidence in him. We like the idea, especially after 129 pitches last weekend, of giving Gausman a full week rest to go on Saturday.”
Another part of the equation was the week Gausman has had.
As expected, he was a first-round draft pick on Monday, the No. 4 selection to Baltimore, which could either take the pressure off or leave his head swimming.
“That’s a little bit of the reason Gausman is not pitching until Game 2,” Mainieri said. “I want him to have time to get his feet back on the ground and digest the whole draft deal. By waiting a game maybe that gets him back to a sense of normalcy.”
The last eight days have been anything but normal for Stony Brook.
Like the Tigers, the Seawolves were snubbed when the 2011 NCAA tournament field was unveiled, despite winning 42 games and the America East regular-season crown.
Motivated and talented – seven Stony Brook players were drafted this week, led by Jankowski in the first round – the Seawolves made sure there was no room for being left out this season.
Still, getting to a regional for the fourth time seemed little more than icing on the cake. Stony Brook had been to the NCAA tourney three times before and was 1-6.
Beating Miami in the regional opener last week was a big step, but a loss in the second game seemed to signal another quick exit.
Instead, the Seawolves rolled through the next three games to climb into rare air.
“We’re trying to diminish the awe factor to some degree, but this isn’t something you get to experience too often,” said Stony Brook coach Matt Senk. We’ve been in regionals three of the last five years so we’ve played in front of some big crowds, but nothing like they’ll have at Alex Box.
“I hope we can feed off of it instead of being intimidated by it.”
Senk said his team got here by being strong in all facets, something the Wolves will have to continue against LSU.
The Tigers have been sporadic in the last few weeks. But when they’re at their best, they can play with anybody in the country and that’s inspired a healthy dose of confidence.
The only concern might be the lack of crunch-time experience at this stage of the season.
Nola, Grant Dozar and Beau Didier are the only three Tigers who were around the last time LSU played in a Super Regional. That means a lot of young players have to quickly come to grips with the magnitude of what’s at stake this weekend.
Katz is one of those players lacking experience in a Super Regional, but he said there’s a pervasive intention to embrace the moment.
“There may be a lot of us who haven’t played in a Super Regional, but we all understand what Omaha is and that’s going to motivate us to play hard,” he said.