Rice heads to the Red Stick

When it comes to postseason baseball, LSU and Rice know each other all too well. Last season, the teams butted heads in Omaha. This season, the Owls come to Baton Rouge in search of a ticket to repeat their trip. Of course, only one of the two will be suiting up in the College World Series.

As head coach Paul Mainieri stood along the first base line of Alex Box Stadium and addressed the media earlier this week, he took to the opening questions on his weekend series with a dab of humor.

“As far as I see it, we are 3-0 against Rice,” he said with a smile.

For those who question the Tiger skipper, his math checks out.

During his stint in South Bend, Mainieri’s Fighting Irish downed the Owls in their only meeting.

Last June, the skipper’s LSU squad topped Rice 6-5 in Omaha.

And, in March of 2008, LSU pitching coach David Grewe – the mastermind behind the success of the Tiger arms, according to Mainieri – silenced the then No. 4 Owls … at the Rice Invitational. The win also marked the highest ranked team that the Spartans had beaten this decade.

Perhaps the headman has a good argument against Wayne Graham’s crew – who sport a 43-16 record and a No. 6 national ranking.

Yet, Rice can fire back.

The Owls are the only team to have taken a Regional or Super Regional in Baton Rouge since 1992.

Graham’s staff – right-hander Mike Ojala (5-0, 1.73 ERA), right-hander Ryan Berry (7-1, 2.00 ERA) and southpaw Taylor Wall (7-5, 3.45 ERA) – will be arguably the best that the Tigers have run upon.

So, go ahead and throw that 3-0 record out the window.

“This is a complete new start from last season,” said junior Ryan Schimpf. “We might have played Rice before, but this is a new team and so are they.”

Regardless, history is there.

The teams are meeting for the sixth time in postseason play – there last run in highlighted by a four-run Tiger ninth inning courtesy of a Blake Dean three-run RBI.

Dean, who became Mr. Clutch for the Bayou Bengals in 2008, is back in his groove once more – batting .326 with 15 home runs, second most on the team.

Of course, even he will admit that it is a tough moment to let go – tapping pitcher Cole St. Clair with a shot off the wall that would send the Owls back to Houston.

It was the highest up the peak that Mainieri had trekked, and LSU fans could smell that something special was brewing in Baton Rouge.

So, forgive even Schimpf – the most convincing of Tigers’ to promote the “forget last season” approach – for wanting to draw on the experience just a little longer.

“I sure wish [St. Clair] was coming to town this weekend,” he said with a smile.

St. Clair won’t be coming, but the Owls are surely not short on arms.

The same goes for their bats.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon is batting a team-high .384 with 19 home runs and 70 RBI. Second baseman Brock Holt is batting .346 with 10 home runs, while shortstop Rick Hague is hitting .324 with 50 RBI.

If the Owls will be quieted at the plate, said Mainieri, it should be with the trio of arms that the Tigers while show this weekend.

“I feel very confident that Anthony, Louis and Austin will go out and get the job done,” he said. “They have done it for us all year, so why change now.”

He has a point. The Tiger staff – made up of Anthony Ranaudo, Louis Coleman and Austin Ross – have only dropped one weekend series (Tennessee) on the entire year.

With a Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament title under their belts, confidence is higher than ever.

“I think that all of us are at our best right now,” Coleman said. “We are setting ourselves up perfectly for the run we need to have.”

That run will begin on Friday with Ranaudo (9-3, 3.09 ERA), who is coming off a nine-inning performance against Baylor – arguably the best gem the sophomore has tossed since putting on a purple and gold uniform.

On Saturday, Coleman (12-2, 2.72 ERA) – the SEC Pitcher of the Year – will toss the rock, another good bet for a late-inning run with plenty of zero’s on the opposition’s frame.

If the series goes to Sunday, of course, the wildcard awaits.

Ross, who sports a 5-7 record with a 4.94 ERA on the year, will take the hill in what should be billed as the sophomore’s biggest outing to date.

Good news for Tiger fans, the Shreveport native is coming off a dominant performance against Southern – bouncing back from a two-run first inning to hold the Jaguars scoreless from then on out.

With all angles accounted for, it appears that the Tigers are grooving unlike they have all season – a perfect time to welcome a team the caliber of Rice into town for a Super Regional showdown.

Come Sunday, Mainieri and his crew might be a perfect 4-0 against the Owls.

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