The Driver's Seat

By the time Friday's Bracket I Championship game rolls around, the LSU baseball team will be reaching quite the milestone. It will have been one month since head coach Paul Mainieri's team dropped a game – winners of 12 straight dating back to May 20.

When his 2008 team boarded their plane from Baton Rouge to Omaha, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri surely must have felt that he was in the “driver’s seat.”

Winners of 24 of their last 25 games, the Tigers were Southeastern Conference Tournament, Regional and Super Regional Champions.

Yet, the party stopped where most hoped it would begin – Omaha.

In the Tigers’ opener, starter Ryan Verdugo was tapped for 10 hits and six runs in 3.2 innings of work. The overall picture was just as bad, seeing LSU give up 17 hits – 15 singles – across six different Tiger pitchers.

On the other side, Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year Austin White awaited with nothing but bad news for the Tiger bats. The right-hander tossed seven innings of four-hit ball to give the No. 2-seeded Tar Heels the win.

The ninth-inning comeback against Rice in the loser’s bracket the following Tuesday has been well chronicled.

Yet, three days later the Tigers were headed back to Baton Rouge.

Back up against North Carolina, Mainieri and his crew fell victim to a bit of magic from the opposition. With the bases loaded and a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth, catcher Tim Fedorowicz cleared the bases on a grand slam for the win.

On the mound for the Tigers that day: Louis Coleman.

So, it is no wonder why the senior decided to return to LSU for his senior season, passing up on pro ball for the second time in his young life.

The right-hander had even told Mainieri during their discussions on his return that he “wanted to get back to Omaha, just to see what happened.”

On Saturday, Coleman got another late-inning taste - just as he had in 2008.

Coming into the contest in the eighth, he fired an inning of hitless ball to hand the final inning of work to freshman closer Matty Ott. The Tigers got the win, and Coleman’s 17 pitches proved crucial in quieting the Cavaliers after they had pressed in the seventh.

On Monday, the Mississippi-native returned to the hill and fired six innings of one-run ball for his 14th win on the year.

It was a career-defining moment for Coleman, but most importantly, the Tigers stayed in the winner’s bracket.

The change from last season to this is evident in Coleman, but the ball does not stop rolling there.

For a team that was tabbed with struggles at the plate – not to mention their inability to touch a left-hander’s pitch – the feeling that they could rely on their “Big 3” arms through two weeks at Rosenblatt seemed a stretch.

Not to worry, for the sound off of the metal has never sounded so sweet.

The Tigers have tallied 18 runs on 27 hits over their two-game stretch in Omaha. The team has also totaled double-digit hits in five straight games dating back to the May 30 Regional game against Baylor (nine hits).

When the pitching was not there – take early Saturday when Anthony Ranaudo lasted just 3.1 innings and allowed a pair of runs on five hits – the Tiger bats came alive.

Another streak to note, Mainieri’s crew has scored in the first inning of the last three games. As for left-hander’s, the Tigers have fended off their last five decisions against the like.

From the young guns – Mikie Mahtook and Austin Nola – to the familiar faces – Blake Dean and Ryan Schimpf – everything is coming together.

And for the first time since 2000, the Tigers are 2-0 and into the Finals of the winner’s bracket in Omaha.

Surely now Mainieri knows how it feels to be in the “driver’s seat.”

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