Aiming for #7: LSU starts CWS journey against Florida State

Red-hot Tigers and Seminoles get down to business Saturday night in the 2017 College World Series

OMAHA, Neb -- It’s not a tough chore to find or hear references to the largest city in Nebraska when you spend much time with the LSU baseball players and coaches. 

Whether it’s the large metallic letters spelling out O-M-A-H-A in the team meeting room, a gigantic mural of the Tigers’ dog pile celebrating the program’s last national championship in the players’ lounge or the way that the Tigers’ eyes light up when they utter the words – Omaha is never too far from their collective minds.

Which makes the 2017 team churning through regional and Super Regional play to punch a ticket back to familiar territory a sweet reward to a five-month grind.

Just not the last thing LSU intends to scratch off its to-do list this season.

With a 16-game winning streak – the longest an LSU team has ever arrived in Omaha with – the Tigers (48-17) tangle with Florida State (45-21) at 7 p.m. Saturday on the opening day of the 2017 College World Series.

That itself is a huge feather in the program’s cap.

“It's really an amazing accomplishment,” said Tigers’ coach Paul Mainieri, who has guided a team here for the fifth time in 10 years. “There are 300 Division I baseball playing schools, and there are eight teams remaining.

“So you have to have a great sense of accomplishment when you come here. Hopefully, (coaches) will come back in the future, but for these young kids, they might get one time here. They might get two times here, if they're lucky. So they need to enjoy the experience.”

Mainieri is 100% correct: Being among the eight teams left standing is something that LSU players, coaches and particularly fans need to step back and absorb as a major feat. That sometimes gets lost because of the difficulty of winning the 5-6 games needed to finish on top in Omaha.

There will be grumblings and rumblings from some about “LSU goes to Omaha to win national championships.” Fair enough. Know what? So do the other seven teams here and every team that steps on the field starting in February.

The Tigers’ foe in the opener is guided by one of the top coaches who has ever occupied a college baseball dugout, Florida State legend Mike Martin. He is here with FSU for the 16th time as the head coach and 21st time overall. He doesn’t have a national championship ring. Let that soak in.

It’s no secret that LSU does have lots of rings, all in the last 27 years. And yes, this current crop of Tigers is ravenously hungry to carve their place in the highest levels of program lore.

“We’re not done yet,” senior leader Kramer Robertson said in the wee hours Monday after LSU finished off Mississippi State in the Super Regional round. “This isn’t the end.”

For the Tigers, the process pushing the end of the season to June 26-28 – the best-of-three national championship series – gets started Saturday. 

Junior Alex Lange takes the mound for his second career CWS start and he is pitching at a high level, with five wins in his last seven starts with 58 strikeouts in that span. 

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Lange faces an FSU lineup that has been up-and-down this season but is coming off a 19-0 explosion on Sunday over Sam Houston State to punch a ticket to Omaha. The Seminoles have scored 5 runs or more in each of their last 14 games and come in with 12 wins in the last 13 games – including an ACC Tournament crown and three wins over fellow CWS entry Louisville.

Outfielder Jackson Lueck (.327, 9 HR, 54 RBIs) and third baseman Dylan Busby (.315, 14 HR, 62 RBIs) are FSU’s two top offensive threats and leadoff man Taylor Walls (63 BB, 78 runs) gives the Seminoles a pesky threat from the top of the order.

“They have a bunch of home run hitters,” Mainieri said in a radio interview this week on WWL. “They really fought their way through the season and played as good as anyone late in the season.  We’re going to have to play our best against them.”

Indeed, FSU did manage to find a late-season groove, which included the impressive 4-0 roll through the ACC Tournament. But in a regional opener at home, the Seminoles tumbled to Tennessee Tech 3-1 and spent the rest of the weekend playing elimination games – twice finding a way to stay alive vs. Auburn when they down to a final strike in a game FSU won 8-7 in 10 innings.

There was a will to keep playing and Florida State found ways: A two-out full-count walk by Walls, Busby’s massive RBI triple on another full-count pitch and then freshman J.C. Flowers wearing an 0-and-2 pitch with the bases loaded to force in the winning run.

Now, a Seminoles’ team that was muddling through the season at 21-15 after a home loss to Clemson on April 15 has won 18 of the last 22 games.

“It all just kind of played out where two-thirds into the regular season, it was almost like every game we played was an elimination game,” Walls said. “For a long time, we were right on the bubble, just playing those games like it was do-or-die. It just prepared us for the tournament and for when we lost that first game to Tennessee Tech, it was almost like we had a mentality that we knew we were going to win.”

Expecting a ton of offense vs. Lange might be wishful thinking. The last pick of the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft earlier this week, the big right-hander brings a 9-5 mark into the CWS opener with 134 strikeouts in 111 innings of work and a 2.92 ERA. He has had plenty of company: During LSU’s 16-game winning streak, the Tigers have surrendered only 35 earned runs in 140 innings (2.25 team ERA) with 144 strikeouts.

The Seminoles counter with sophomore left-hander Tyler Holton (10-2, 2.25 ERA, 139 Ks, .179 opponent batting average), who has been every bit as good as Lange this season and has logged four solid starts since the postseason began.

Producing runs has rarely been a problem for LSU of late. 

Since a 7-6 loss at home to South Alabama on May 9, the Tigers are hitting a collective .305 and averaging 8.5 runs a game. Six regulars are hitting .305 or better during the late-season burst, paced by Robertson’s .382 (26-for-68, 5 2B, 2 3B, 3 HR, 27 R, 17 RBIs). He has recorded seven multiple-hit games in the last 13 outings and leads the country with 83 runs scored.

A pass-the-baton element has also been vital. The top two hitters in NCAA Tournament play for LSU are Josh Smith (.462, 8 R) and Michael Papierski (.400, 6 R, 8 RBIs, game-winning RBI in both Super Regional victories). Zach Watson also has 8 RBIs on the strength of four home runs in regional play. Those three often make up the bottom third of the batting order.

By this time of year, every pitch, every defensive chance, every at-bat, every inning is a battle within the battle. That’s something both teams have maximized to reach the CWS.

Like Mainieri, Martin is intimately familiar with what the College World Series brings with it. His hunt for the national championship is perpetually a topic when the Seminoles get to Omaha and will be until it is not anymore. He joked about it during the coaches’ press conference, but also added injected nostalgia.

“I must admit, for many years, I was Captain Ahab, and I was trying my best to get Moby Dick, and nothing ever happened,” Martin said. “But I can say this: You'll never be able to take away the memories. You'll never be able to take away the excitement. As a coach, it’s up to us to be sure that our players do what they tried to do all year long because none of us would be here if our players did not do what we were trying to get them to do for the last five months.” 

The Tigers and Seminoles are here, and that’s a big deal. Now it’s time to see who can take the first step toward getting a chance to add a nice dose of lagniappe to an already successful season.

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