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Winning Time Is Coming

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This season will be the one that defines the LSU baseball program

LSU isn’t in the business of being successful. LSU is in the winning business.

Many other school list their successful seasons - conference regular season championships, conference tournament championships, NCAA tournament appearances, national seed year, College World Series appearances - somewhere prominent in the ballpark, usually on the outfield wall. The only thing that LSU recognizes in this manner are national championships, and they do so with a massive billboard over right field called simply The Intimidator. The only successful seasons LSU has are the ones where they win the last game of the season.

The Intimidator hasn’t been updated since 2009, and for the LSU program that’s too long. For a program that likens itself to what Alabama is in college football, it’s incomparable.

Last year Paul Mainieiri pulled off one of the best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen in my 10 years or so of actively following college baseball, taking a team that was replacing eight starters and a shaky bullpen and somehow crafting a 45 win season before losing to the eventual national champions in the Super Regionals.

It’s hard to be critical of a team whose season ended in one step short of Omaha in a near total rebuild year. But this is the school that just fired the winningest head coach in the school’s football program because he didn’t win enough. Paul Mainieri is one of the best coaches in college baseball by reputation, but when you look at the talent that came through Alex Box Stadium and the regular season results then the lack of more championships becomes slightly more and more baffling. The pressure isn’t as hot on Mainieri as it was for Miles, and for good reason, but it’s there. Nobody talks about it, but you can sense it. There’s a blooming rule of two that is spreading among LSU fans: the excitement that leads them to count the days until Opening Day on social media and the hopeful “THIS IS THE YEAR” statements are paired with a dreadful “but what if it isn’t” that usually goes unvoiced. With each year it grows but nobody speaks on it.

So let’s break that silence.

Thanks to the incredible season where eight new starters were thrown into the mix and got farther in the postseason than anticipated, there’s a solid base with postseason experience. Thanks to one of the best recruiting classes to ever be reeled in, there’s an immense well of untapped talent. And yes, there are some potential excuses: the widely-celebrated hitting coach left in the middle of fall ball to take a job at archrival Mississippi State. Two (potential) starters, Bryce Jordan and Greg Deichmann are injured, Jordan for the season and Deichmann day to day as of now. But Paul Mainieri has never been one to embrace excuses, either from his players or from the man himself. People inside and outside of the program expect LSU to contend for a title this year, which is the status quo.

But if LSU fails to win a championship, they will be moving in on a decade without a title. For many schools, that’s not a problem. For LSU, it’s a disappointment.

In recent years I’ve noticed that there are two types of disappointment aimed at sports, and it wasn’t until fellow ATVS writer Poseur pointed out that I complain about Arsenal that I really took note of it and thought of it. The first is the kind where your team just sucks. You enter a season hoping for improvement, but when it’s more of the same old mediocrity (or worse), than you either become resigned to the end and enjoy the ride (Cubs fans in the earlier part of the decade) or become disconnected from the sport entirely (Browns fans every year). The second is heartbreak. This is where you support a good team that every year looks to break through and almost never does. This is the 90’s between the Bills and the Braves. This is more brutal because it gives you hope, and hope makes you more vulnerable to this kind of stuff. Just ask Falcons fans.

Poseur supports Leeds United, a club that fell from the Premier League (England’s top division) in 2004 all the way to the League 1 (third division) in 2007 and is currently trying to figure out how to finish above mid table in the Championship (second division). I support Arsenal, a club that has nearly has as many unlimited resources as possible in soccer in addition to world class talent and, even in a year when every other major team can’t put together a winning side, can’t seem to sign and seal a finish higher than second. Poseur may look over and can’t believe that I complain about consistent top four finishes, and I can’t fathom a way where not winning a single title since 2004 isn’t disappointing.

LSU falls in line with the second type of disappointment in terms of their recent baseball seasons.

Now let me make this abundantly clear: I do not consider any player, coach, or team to be a failure. LSU has had some great teams in the recent years, but despite that talent they’ve ended their season empty handed. Paul Mainieri is regarded as one of the best coaches in college baseball, and last year was a master class in coaching. But the shine is wearing off on the 2009 trophy, and it’s starting to bring some justification to those claims that Mainieri is at the risk of falling into the same hole Les Miles and Arsene Wenger fell into: great, but not great enough. We all know he’s great, it’s a matter of proving it.

But it’s not time for that yet. This isn’t winning time, not yet. That begins on May 23rd. That’s when the pressure comes on and winning becomes imperative. Everything from Friday until then is about taking at least two out of three every weekend and if not, then it’s not the end of the world. It’s about grooming third starters, getting experience in the midweeks, and letting the talent play itself out.

So in the meantime, just soak up the fact that baseball is back, real meaningful baseball and not glorified practice baseball played at Disney World. LSU should be good this year, and few things are better than getting to watch a good college baseball team. For the next three months, enjoy the sun-soaked days and chirping birds that give way to humid nights capped by purple-dyed sunsets and the calming nirvana that it provides. Because summer heat and storms are going to roll in eventually.