It was only 17 games into the 2008 season before Sean Ochinko realized that the run was over.
“I was not hitting that well, and like you see this season, coach wants the best nine guys out on the field,” he said. “I was not one of those best nine guys, so I had to sit back and take my chances when I got them.”
As Tiger fans witnessed down the stretch, not many opportunities slipped by the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder.
Ochinko started in 30 of his 47 appearances, batting .272 (37-for-136) with six doubles, four home runs and 21 RBI. When it comes to the swings that he will remember, the mind must wander back to the magical run to Omaha.
Ochinko delivered the go-ahead RBI single during a five-run ninth inning in Game 2 of the Super Regional vs. UC-Irvine on June 8. Heading into the inning down 7-4 with their backs against the wall, the single moved the Tigers out front 8-7, a lead they would extend to a 9-7 victory.
“I just stayed composed,” he said. “I had not been getting starting playing time, but I was making everything count. It was a great learning experience for me, and I am definitely a better player because of it.”
Whatever it was, head coach Paul Mainieri surely has it written down and stored away.
Leaving Micah Gibbs to handle the duties behind the plate, Ochinko has found a comfortable home at first base this season. With 45 starts in 45 appearances, the junior is batting .341 (57-of-167) with ten doubles, seven home runs and 43 RBI.
“I don’t really know how things turned for me this year,” said Ochinko with a laugh. “I think I just stayed cool and collected and let things come to me, and I have been able to stay on top.
“Everyone has their own special routine that works for them, and I just try to stay in that,” he added. “You mix a certain amount of live swings and get some rest, and about 50 games into the schedule you are pretty settled into what works.”
The only stumble – knock on wood – came in the series against Tennessee.
“I tweaked my hamstring a little bit stretching for a ball in the third game of the weekend,” he said. “I sat out against Auburn, which turned out to be a good thing. I was able to get my timing back and just realize that I needed to settle into the rhythm that I have built this season.
“I wanted to get back for the Tulane game on April 29, so I kept with the trainers and we were able to turn my injury around with good timing,” he added. “When you sit down for a while you begin to realize how much you appreciate being out there in an LSU uniform, so I am glad to be back.”
When he returned, however, things did not look as they did when he left them.
“I guess you could say that coach switched things up a bit,” he laughed.
Freshman Austin Nola, who had started in just a handful of midweek games all season, was the new man at shortstop.
The move to get the hot-gloved Baton Rouge native onto the field saw DJ LeMahieu slide to second base, Ryan Schimpf to left field, Jared Mitchell to right field and freshman Mikie Mahtook to center.
“Everyone wondered what it would be like, but I think it has worked well,” Ochinko said. “I had no idea until the day coach told the whole team we would mix it up; but Nola has a great glove, so I was not surprised.
“It also comes down to coach, because he makes the decisions when it comes down to hitting,” he added. “If you hit, you play. I know that from experience because I could not hit consistently last season, and I did not play.”
With the starting card set, how do this year’s Tigers stack up against last season’s Omaha team?
“Last year was special, and I don’t want to take anything away from that, but I think we are better off now,” Ochinko said. “We are more experienced, because when we enter these last few weeks we know what is on the line. These are not uncharted waters for us.
“Having played in Omaha last year, and knowing what a regional is like, there is less tension and we are more prepared,” he added. “There is a calm over the locker room, and that is experience. Gibbs, Clark, Dean, none of those guys knew what an SEC tournament or regional or Omaha was like. We went through it together, so when it comes back we will be ready.”
As for the influx of freshmen, Ochinko said that there is no sense of worry with the unknown.
“We tell those guys, like Nola, [Tyler] Hanover and Mikie, that we will lead the way,” he said. “Dean, Gibbs, LeMahieu, Jared and myself, guys like that, we have all been there before. We have played in big games, so we can lead this team.”
The biggest of games, perhaps, is on the docket for this weekend.
LSU (36-13, 16-8 SEC) welcomes Florida (34-15, 16-8 SEC) to Alex Box Stadium with both teams tied for first place in the conference.
“This is the biggest weekend for us so far, no doubt,” Ochinko said. “We want to win the SEC just as bad as they do, so it will be big-time.”
The weekend is “big-time” for Ochinko, of course, for a number of reasons.
A native of Parkland, Fla., the Douglas High standout grew up amongst the same players that will wear orange and blue in the visitor’s dugout.
“I know a lot of those guys from high school and travel teams growing up, so I will have a little extra in my bat for them,” he said with a smile. “I have my family and stuff driving in for the series, so it should be a fun time.”
To preview what is in store, both teams have recorded 18 games decided by one or two runs on the season. LSU holds a 12-6 record, while Florida owns an 11-7 mark.
“I think that stat just goes to show what the weekend will be like,” Ochinko said. “These two teams are going to both be ready, and it should be a dogfight. A lot is one the line.”
Tied with Ole Miss and the Florida with hopes of winning the SEC, what is the mood of the team headed into the schedule’s most intense stretch?
“Inside that clubhouse right now, everyone wants to win the SEC,” he said. “More so than last year, because we were not thinking about goals or anything on that 23-game win streak.
“Now, we are playing consistent baseball to where we have experienced ups and downs, and we know what we need to do to achieve each of our marks,” he added. “I think we are setting our goals now and understand how to achieve them. I don’t want to say we were too hot last year, but I like where we are at right now.”
As for his part in what is to come, Ochinko said that his performance from the plate thus far will mean nothing if he can’t finish strong.
“It has been a great season, but I want to continue to be a contributor,” he said. “I can get as good as I want in the regular season, but if I can’t come through for the team here then it won’t matter.
“As good as my numbers might be at the end of the season, if I don’t get the job done now, I am going to be pretty upset.”