HOOVER, Ala. - - Prior to his team’s trek to the Southeastern Conference Tournament, head coach Paul Mainieri made it clear that the goal was as follows: have fun and let everything else take care of itself.
As his team rushed the field following Sunday’s championship game win over Vanderbilt – the same team that dealt the Tigers their only loss of the week – it was safe to say that the Bayou Bengals had done just that.
“It feels good,” Mainieri said. “I am just so proud of our guys.”
Turning his focus to what brought the Tigers through the weekend, the LSU skipper praised the staff’s arms for the performance that was.
“For me, this championship was won because of our pitching as a group,” Mainieri said. “To see the way all these kids know how to utilize their abilities, you have to give credit to [pitching coach] David Grewe. The job he has done is absolutely amazing. It was one of the greatest performances by a pitching coach that you could imagine.”
After consecutive wins by Anthony Ranaudo, Louis Coleman, Daniel Bradshaw and Nolan Cain, Mainieri found one final arm to get the job done.
For dramatic purposes, the arm that came through was perhaps the least suspected.
Senior Ryan Byrd – who entered the day with a less than stellar 6.11 ERA in ten appearances– had not landed a decision all season.
No matter, for the southpaw had the same magic that carried Bradshaw and Cain the day prior. Working seven innings of two-run ball, Byrd allowed just five hits and recorded three strikeouts in his best performance to date.
“Coach came to me on the bus last night and asked if I wanted the ball, and I could not have been more excited,” Byrd said. “This performance ranks pretty high in my career. To know that coach has confidence in you, as well the 24 guys behind you, was something special.”
The Tigers got out of the gates in a hurry courtesy of a Leon Landry double to lead off the first. The sophomore advanced to third on a Ryan Schimpf ground out before scoring on a Blake Dean sacrifice – leaving LSU with a 1-0 advantage that they would carry over the next three frames.
In the fourth, LSU added to their lead with scores from Micah Gibbs and Mikie Mahtook – putting the visitor’s out front 3-0.
Vanderbilt countered in the bottom half on a Steven Liddle solo home run to left center – just the third hit Byrd had allowed.
Batting in the clutch, as they had all week, Mainieri’s crew responded without hesitation – driving in a pair of runs in the fifth to push the lead to four.
Landry, who was 3-for-4 on the day with an RBI and two runs, drove in Austin Nola for the first score of the frame. The sophomore later scored from third on a sacrifice fly by Dean– putting the Tigers’ run total at five.
The sides traded runs for a final time in the seventh, which would be all she wrote for the tournament’s final bout.
Buzzy Haydel tossed two innings of one-hit ball to close the Commodore’s out, putting the finishing touches on what became a weekend to remember for the purple-and-gold faithful.
For the first time in history, LSU had dropped the opening game of the tournament and fought back to take the title.
“We had some magic in the gloves, bats and pitching,” Landry said. “We knew what we had to do, and we came out and got the job done. It took every person on this team to step up. That is what made it special.”
Dean, who was the tournament’s MVP in 2008, said that the 2009 run was even more magical than the last.
“I think we showed a lot of poise coming out after the first loss,” he said. “Our pitchers were unbelievable. What Bradshaw, Cain and Byrd did was the definition of stepping up.”
Stepping up, it seemed, was contagious.
Mikie Mahtook, the Tigers’ freshman centerfielder, was honored as the tournament’s MVP.
Funny thing, for the Lafayette-native was no more than a spectator one year ago.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “I came to Hoover last year to watch Blake Dean win it, so to pick up the same trophy he had, that has not even hit me yet. Being from Louisiana and loving LSU baseball my whole life, I can’t even put into words the emotions that I am feeling.”
Headed back to Baton Rouge with the SEC regular season and tournament titles, the Tigers will turn their focus to next Thursday’s regional at Alex Box Stadium.
The obvious question remains: where does this team stack up to last year’s title squad?
“I think we are way better, no doubt in my mind,” Dean said.