It's time to write down what I (and possibly you) have been thinking all season.
What made losing in the 2015 College World Series was knowing the last year's team was the team. If LSU was going to bring home a title, it was to be with that team. Mental errors and a lack of a third pitcher ultimately killed them, but the lineup was a veritable murder's row, every starter except for Jared Foster was batting above .300, and Foster was batting a healthy .278. There were no holes in defense, especially in the outfield where LSU had two B-2s in Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird. When Alex Lange was pitching, LSU was nearly guaranteed a victory. All Paul Mainieri had to do was sit in the dugout and let the team run their course.
But they didn't bring home the hardware. And the offseason hit with news of mass departures that left Jake Fraley as the lone returning starter in the lineup. And it wasn't just players, Will Davis announced that he had accepted Lamar's offer to be head coach in waiting for the 2016 season.
But we all assumed that LSU will be fine in 2016, they'll just be the exact opposite of what they were in 2015. Sure there would be plenty of roster turnover in regards to the lineup, but the pitching staff is loaded with the three headed monster of Lange, Poche', and a finally healthy Jake Latz. Plus thanks to Akron axing their baseball program, LSU acquired their ace John Valek III to be a presumptive fourth starter if the Austin Bain project doesn't pan out.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
During the preseason, Latz suffered a stress fracture in his throwing elbow and would have to miss most of the season, making his collegiate debut in late April. Bain never nailed down a starting spot and Alden Cartwright would go down in the middle of the season with a torn elbow ligament. Poche' struggled with consistency and became notable for his poor starts to games, and Lange struggled with a sophomore slump. To his credit, John Valek III put on a remarkable performance and ended up contributing greatly as the team's third starter for most of the season.
So with a nearly identical pitching situation as last year, Mainieri had to roll with basically a brand new lineup and find the best position for every player on the field. All told, four players would be returning from last year's team and only one was an established starter. So Mainieri would have to make adjustments on the fly and plug and play players as he saw fit. This generated an opening day lineup much different than the one LSU played with in May and June. Kramer Robertson was playing second instead of short (I'll have more on him later), Trey Dawson was starting at short, and Cole Freeman was in a dogfight for third bagger with O'Neal Lochridge (who later won the third base spot before suffering a lower back injury). Really, the only established starters for LSU were the outfield trio of Beau Jordan, Fraley, and freshman Antoine Duplantis.
And the team learned how to hit during the course of the season, too. Cole Freeman, the perceived defensive starter, ended up leading the team in both average (.329) and OBP (.427) while Duplantis, Fraley, and Robertson batted over .300, with Jordan Romero and Bryce Jordan not far off the mark.
So is it fair to say when the perennial exceptions of the LSU fan base dictates that any season that doesn't end in an Omaha dogpile is a failure, Mainieri's earned his money with a 47-21 season and failed to make the trip to Omaha?
I completely think it is. Mainieri took a rebuilding year and pieced together (with the help of a nocturnal marsupial) a national seed made up nearly completely of freshman or first year players. After opening the SEC season with a shocking loss to Alabama and getting bested by A&M before losing back to back games against Tulane and Auburn, Mainieri was able to pull out of the flatspin and nearly sweep Vanderbilt at home. After a sweep of Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss humbled LSU with Tulane doing the double over the Tigers between. And then, once again, Mainieri was able to find a way to get his team hot, ending the season on a 17-5 tear, 17-3 counting out the Super Regional.
This time last year, LSU fans were in a weird spot by not being able to say "next year is our year" with confidence. Mainieri made that possible. In time, memories of this season will fade, hopefully cast into the shadow of coming national championship(s). But this season will always stand tall and bear the distinct markings of the year Mainieri proved his worth in salt as skipper of the LSU Tigers.