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Go time: LSU set to create new memories as regional play gets rolling at The Box

Veteran Tigers are focused and motivated after a punch-in-the-gut ending to the 2016 season

Sometimes in life, it’s slippery to pinpoint the exact moment when motivation was hatched. It can be a subtle thing or a buildup of experiences.

Then there is vivid clarity with some moments that hang around in the pit of your stomach and nag at you.

For LSU, the latter has been the case for 355 days, and with the dawn of a new June, the Tigers are quietly confident that they can chase some sour memories away.

It’s NCAA Regional time in Baton Rouge, an almost annual rite of late spring for LSU, and this time around there is a sharper and renewed focus.

The host Tigers (43-17), the No. 4 overall seed, open things up when they take on Texas Southern (20-32) at 2:30 p.m. at Alex Box Stadium with Rice (31-29) and Southeastern Louisiana (36-20) square off at 7 p.m.

Friday marks the first step for LSU to erase the memory of a Super Regional loss at home to Coastal Carolina, a two-game sweep that ended June 12 on a walk-off single in the bottom of the 9th inning. The Chanticleers rode their wave of momentum all the way to a stunning national championship and that eased the sting a little.

But it’s clear that a core group of veterans who have been at the eye of the storm for the last two seasons or for the Tigers hasn’t forgotten the memory of how last season ended.

Trumping that, though, is a turn-the-page mentality that came in awfully handy this season when LSU coughed and sputtered in the first half of the season. Things turned around once April arrived (LSU is 24-7 since a 4-3 loss to Texas A&M on April 1), and the Tigers come in with an 11-game winning stream, regular-season SEC co-championship and league tournament crown as impressive springboards.

All of that goes on the back burner now, though.

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“This is what you start working for in August,” LSU senior shortstop said Kramer Robertson said Thursday in low, almost reverent tones. “

“Now that’s it’s here you take a deep breath and know what to expect.”

Which is a common thread and battle cry intertwined together with the Tigers. Basically, not a whole lot will surprise this LSU crew. 

Yes, four freshmen play key roles – Josh Smith and Zach Watson as position starters, Eric Walker as the No. 3 starter and Zack Hess as one of the two setup men in the bullpen.

But the Tigers are brimming with veteran experience, led by Robertson, Cole Freeman, Antoine Duplantis, Greg Deichmann, Michael Papierski, Jared Poche and Alex Lange, Caleb Gilbert and Hunter Newman as the anchors of a core group that have been vital cogs for at least the last two and in some cases three and four years.

“That’s been things that have been helping us all year,” said Poche, who gets the ball vs. Texas Southern. “Guys came back with crucial innings and crucial at-bats. That’s part of the reason we’re where we’re at.”

Indeed, the emotional makeup of this LSU squad is built on experience, and of late, the Tigers’ steps to get this far have all come together in the right direction.

LSU’s hot streak is the product of a diverse offense that is clicking 1-9, pitching that turned a corner in a big way after the rough beginning and brings a 1.99 ERA over the last 11 games into regional play and a defense that has been one of the best in the country all season.

It took a while for all the parts to click into the right places, with junior first baseman Nick Coomes playing a major role in that as a starter at that spot as well as consistent protection behind Deichmann in the batting order. Papierski and Robertson have both swung the bat as well as they have in their entire careers the last few weeks.

“We’re playing loose and coming together as a team,” Poche said. “That’s our thing right now: We know every game the rest of the way is the biggest game of the season, but it’s still the same game we’ve been playing all our lives.”

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That calmness and every-day approach provides part of the basis for the explanation of why LSU coach Paul Mainieri is turning to Poche, the Tigers’ No. 2 starter all season, to take on a Texas Southern team that is also hot.

There is some conventional wisdom that throwing a fourth or fifth starter is the best option for a powerful team like LSU, but Mainieri was quick to point out that saving Poche for Sunday might mean Walker – who has been as vital to the Tigers’ surge as any other pitcher – wouldn’t throw in his normal spot for at least a week and potentially 2 or 3.

Poche is also better equipped than Lange or Walker to bounce back physically and be on call later in the weekend or on Monday should LSU need him, either in relief or as a starter.

Right in the thick of why Mainieri is turning to the most reliable senior starting pitcher he has had since Louis Coleman in 2009 is what the Tigers’ coach believes he will get.

“I want to have a pitcher out there in the opening game I know I can trust because Texas Southern is hot and they have the kind of pitcher that could befuddle us for a little while,” Mainieri said. “If that happens, I want our guy out there that I feel can keep it a low-scoring game. If the game develops in a way that’s favorable to us, we can always pull Jared and have him available later.”

The notion of coming back on short rest if needed is more motivation for Poche.

“That might be part of why he went with me, and I know I was hoping I’d get the ball for that reason,” Poche said. “I’m ready to do whatever we need me to do to help us get to the Super Regional.”

It’s no secret that motivation is in large supply, for Poche and his teammates. 

That process began almost a year ago and now it’s time to see how much the Tigers can capitalize on their heartache and convert it into success.

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