Still a special season

Omaha, Neb. – A day before a heartbreaking exit from the College World Series, LSU pitcher Jared Bradford and third-baseman Michael Hollander were trying to pick out a favorite memory they've had playing for the Tigers.

They soon found out such a feat would not be easily accomplished.


“This year, there have been so many big ballgames,” Bradford said. “We couldn’t decide on which one we really loved. There were so many of them this year."


LSU was the team that never said never. The Tigers came back 30 times to win games. They came back from a 6-11-1 start to the conference season to win 23 straight and become the SEC West champs.  They won the SEC tournament, a regional, a super regional, a game at the College World Series.


When the Tigers finally met a season-ending contest they couldn’t come back from – a 7-3 loss to North Carolina at the College World Series decided by a ninth-inning grand slam – LSU players and coaches still knew 2008 had been something special.


“They just liked each other so much,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “They wanted the season to go on forever.”


There was significant hurt in losing, but not shame. Despite having a relatively young team, the Tigers made it to the College World Series for the first time in four years. They also went toe-to-toe with a North Carolina team that has been the national runner-up the past two seasons.


The simple difference: LSU couldn’t score a run when it got the bases loaded in the eighth. North Carolina got the big blast when it got the bases loaded in the ninth.


Such is baseball.


“We’re taught to leave everything out on the field and I think that’s what this team did today,” Bradford said. “There’s definitely no regrets when it comes to that, that’s for sure.”


The season can certainly be viewed as a positive for an LSU program that hadn’t won a game in Omaha since the 2000 national championship season. This Tigers team broke the CWS drought when it rallied for four runs in the ninth to beat Rice on Tuesday.


Not bad for a team that had only three upperclassmen in its starting nine – senior Michael Hollander and juniors Matt Clark and Derek Helenihi.


“I like to feel we made a big step forward with the program,” Mainieri said. “I’ve said this very many times that you win with high-character kids. And what we tried to do is go out and identify not only talented baseball players, but kids with a lot of great character. And I think we succeeded tremendously at that, and the results ended up showing on the field.”


The coach praised the leadership of guys like Hollander and Bradford, rare seniors on the team. He also talked about the incredible growth as a player by Clark, who hit a nation-leading 28 home runs and toted a .342 batting average.


“His numbers speak for themselves, but he wanted to win so badly and he cared about the right things,” Mainieri said. “There were so many kids on our team that way. I’m just very proud of that.”


But if you want one quick example about what 2008 was all about for the LSU baseball team, look no further than Bradford.


The right-hander threw 106 pitches against Rice on Tuesday, yet came back on Friday to throw 5.2 innings of four-hit ball against North Carolina on just two day’s rest.


That kind of heart is what Mainieri wants LSU baseball to be about.


“I’ll be talking about him 10 years from now, what he’s done for our program will be so far-reaching beyond what his statistics are,” the coach said.


Mainieri just hopes people don’t look at this season in any negative fashion just because it ended with a loss at the CWS. Only one of eight good teams leaves Omaha completely satisfied, after all.


“The way they play the game, the never-say-die attitude, I got to believe that people that really love LSU baseball have to be really fulfilled by what these kids did,” Mainieri said. “It’s hard to win the national championship. There’s an awful lot of great teams out there. We just feel like we ran out of innings.”

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