The best team does not always win. Nowhere is it written that if, on paper, you have the best collection of talent, then you automatically get to have the trophy. That's why they play the games, and baseball is a fickle mistress. Caveats aside...
LSU is the best team in Omaha. This Tiger squad is not just happy to be here. They have spent the entire postseason, heck, the whole season, with a laser-like focus on winning the national title. This was never about just getting back to Omaha. That was just a step, albeit an important one, to winning the whole thing.
Watson did a great job breaking down the field yesterday, but he stopped short of saying what I am: LSU is better than the other seven teams. Again, that doesn't guarantee you a damn thing in Omaha, but it certainly helps. However, this team certainly is not without weaknesses.
The Third Starter
Alex Lange and Jared Poche' were terrific all season long, and somehow have been even better in the postseason. For all of the well-deserved plaudits the offense gets, LSU made the College World Series on the arms of its top two pitchers.
However, there is giant drop off after the top two. Mainieri spent all season trying to find a reliable third starter and here we are in Omaha and he still doesn't have an answer. If LSU makes it to its third game without a loss, this giant hole in the roster still might not get exposed. LSU would likely throw Austin Bain against some other team's fourth starter (either a midweek guy or Johnny Allstaff). Even if Bain, or Reynolds, falters, Mainieri would likely be able to go back to Alex Lange for a decisive elimination game. It's not ideal, but LSU's inability to find a third starter won't be exposed if Lange and Poche' both notch wins.
The calculus changes radically if LSU ends up in the loser's bracket. I just don't see any way this team can punch its way out of the loser's bracket without simply outslugging teams, and praying the pitching holds. The loser's bracket adds another game just to make the semifinals, and if you do make it out, now you're the team throwing Johnny Allstaff against their third starter. Vanderbilt is the only other team in the region that has similar difficulties in finding its third starter. Even if by some miracle you win, you're now likely going up against a team's ace, playing your sixth game in a week and half while this is your opponent's fourth.
Some teams seem built for the loser's bracket and its high demands on your staff (see TCU's near endless supply of pitching depth). LSU is not one of those teams. LSU's roster advantage is lost the moment it loses a game and gets sent to the loser's bracket. Avoid those extra games at all costs.
Exacerbating the issue with the rotation is the completely unreliable bullpen. LSU's pen doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Mainieri's solution is to ride Lange and Poche' for as long as they can possibly go. They have been up to the task so far, but if either falters, Mainieri has to start using guys who might have been later options to start a game.
The other teams in the field are pretty darn good, and the ballpark suppresses scoring. Put those two factors together and it becomes likely that LSU will be in a tight, low-scoring game in the late innings. Maineri is going to have to turn to a bullpen arm to get a key out, and it's a pretty open question who he will turn to. Person? Bugg? Newman? Norman? And honestly, what is anyone's role? It seems the usage patterns for all of them is just to throw them out there and see who has his stuff that night... and you can't guess wrong in Omaha.
LSU goes into Omaha with no closer, no third starter, no defined roles in the bullpen, and not even a relief ace who we know will get the call when things get sticky. LSU has been able to hide this weakness all postseason long, but it is unlikely that will continue. The bullpen will have moment when it is center stage, and it will need to step up and get the big outs.
No one is honestly worried about the lineup. OK, Alex Bregman has been in a postseason-long slump, but there's not a whole lot you can do about that. Either he will start hitting or he won't, as there is no chance in hell he gets moved in the lineup, much less sees the bench. Besides, it's the nature of the game that somebody is not going to be hitting in your lineup. The key for LSU is that the lineup is so deep that it doesn't much matter if one guy is slumping. You've got options when you have eight hitters over .300.
What is a concern is the ballpark itself. TD Ameritrade is an extreme pitcher's park, and it has swallowed up offense, especially the longball. The NCAA changed the balls in the offseason to combat the decline in offense, and that has made an impact. Now is the real test. It wasn't just the balls causing the power to evaporate in Omaha, it is the park. LSU doesn't need the park to play like Rosenblatt, but we likely will not win if it still plays like the Polo Grounds. The home run at least has to be on the table.
LSU can still score runs by relying on the amount of speed it can put on the basepaths and a string of high average hitters. This is not a station-to-station Gorilla Ball team. However, this offense stresses balance, and power is a part of the balance. If there is no power, it may throw the whole machine out of whack, while small ball offenses like Fullerton and TCU may thrive in the low-scoring environment.
For a guy who has a national title on his resume, Paul Mainieri sure takes a lot of grief from the second guessing crowd (we now have membership badges!). Mainieri has an unfortunate addiction to sacrifice bunting, which might actually serve him well if this park transports us all back to 1968. Don't rule it out, as we still don't know how the new balls will play in this park. If this becomes a series of 2-1 games, then trying to manufacture a run becomes a viable idea. The issue is how early he shifts his strategy.
The big issues for Mainieri is managing the staff. He's never been the best at managing the staff when he has a lot of options, so it seems unlikely he's going to become Tony LaRussa when he's trying to squeeze every last bit of production out of the staff. He tends to have a slow hook for his starters and a quick hook for his relievers. Given the makeup of the staff, that's not the worst instinct to have. He has to ride those top two guys, and he can't afford to let his relievers find themselves. He needs to gamble the guy he puts out there has his stuff tonight, and if he doesn't, find the guy who does.
Honestly, Mainieri's biggest weaknesses as a game manager might become strengths given the park and his current roster. He's built a team that plays to his tendencies. He's not going to spend the series trying to cram a round peg into a square hole, which is the worst sin a coach can make.
He's got a deep, talented, experienced team. All of the pieces are there to make yet another title run. It's now up to Mainieri to put it all together. He's the key to these next two weeks. Final exam starts now.