It's hard to tell with the snow and the cold, but baseball season starts this week. I will get the baseball previews up as the week goes on, but I just want to take a step back for a second and want us all to realize just how good LSU baseball is.
We are the juggernaut of NCAA. We are the big bully on the block, and the team that, by all rights, everyone else roots against. We are ridiculously spoiled over the last two decades, and we have won more than our share of titles. How good is LSU baseball? It's a program so successful that during our "dark ages" in which the program supposedly bottomed out over a six-year period, LSU still went to Omaha twice and won an SEC title. Going to Omaha twice in six years is viewed as an abject failure, because the team didn't win a game when it got to the CWS.
In the past two decades, LSU has won more titles than the Yankees. Think about that. The Yankees are seen as the ultimate villain in pro sports, recklessly spending other teams into oblivion and simply buying titles, tilting MLB into the ultimate unfair playing field. And even with their $200 million payroll, the Yankees have won less titles than LSU over the past 20 years (six to five). Maybe LSU isn't the Yankees of college baseball, but the Yankees are the LSU of pro ball.
Which begs the question, why is LSU so good? Let's look at the factors.
WE CARE. The SEC had over one million fans attend a baseball game last year, which just dwarfs any other conference. 200,000 of those fans went to a game at Alex Box. This gives LSU an almost unique homefield advantage in baseball. Nearly ten thousand fans show up for each weekend game, creating a truly intimidating environment. Granted, most SEC teams will play in front of several thousand, but come Regionals time, most teams are used to playing in front of maybe a few hundred. Playing at the Box is just a gigantic shock to even a great team like UC-Irvine.
The fact that LSU truly cares also leads to scrutiny. Those 200,000 fans demand a winner. Just making it Omaha is a success at almost every other school in the nation, but not here. Let's fall back on the cliché, other schools want to win, LSU has to win.
BIG BALL. The NCAA has curbed the performance of the aluminum bats used in college, so we won't see the huge run scoring environment of the late 90s, but college baseball is still an offensive game. Many coaches (cough) (Augie) (cough) believe that bunting and running is the way to go in this high-run environment. They sacrifice outs and play for one run, ignoring the old Earl Weaver adage "If you play for one run, that's all you're going to get."
LSU plays for big innings. We practically invented Gorilla Ball, demonstrating that a bunt is just giving up another chance for a hit. If you can't hit at LSU, you don't play. There's rarely an easy out in the order, and almost every player is an honest threat to go deep. Whoever has the biggest inning is likely going to win the game. Skip transformed college ball from a game of situational hitting to a game of raw power. Score runs.
DEFENSE. Even with the stress on the big inning, LSU has always stressed converting balls in play to outs. We have had some terrible defensive players before at important defensive positions (Todd Walker, for one), but that's not that common. The reason teams like to bunt is because it puts pressure on the defense. Skip and now Mainieri understand that if the other team is giving away outs, by God, take them.
LSU has had some stud pitchers in its past, and has a great one now, but the defensive strategy has long been: just let the defense make plays. Keep the ball in the yard. Unless you have that great Rice rotation, it's pretty likely you're going to throw some mediocre pitchers out there. They need to just keep the ball in play and they can rely on the defense to make outs. Don't give away outs on either end.
MAGIC. While Curt Schilling was right when he said that Mystique and Aura are just strippers, LSU always seems to have the right amount of magic. LSU has never lost a Championship Game/Series in Omaha. When we make it to the final two, we win. I don't know how, it just happens. And that is one of the greatest things about this program, it never seems to run out of magic. Wherever we keep the lucky charms, I hope that source never dries up.
There is no magic formula, though. A lot of it is a self-perpetuating cycle: LSU wins, so it can attract top players who continue to win. Repeat. But LSU's overall strategy has always been something that is so obvious, I can't believe it is still seriously debated: outs are bad. LSU doesn't give away outs on either side of the diamond, which may feed the cockiness that is a hallmark of the program. The team doesn't give you anything. If you're going to beat LSU, you usually have to earn it.
Bring on baseball season. But also, bring on the hate. LSU baseball is ready, twirling their moustaches, like the villains we are. You know, sometimes it's fun being the bad guys.