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Mainieri and the Legend of Skip

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You have to embrace the legend and the expectations he created.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-LSU vs TCU
It’s not a ghost if he’s right there
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Mainieri is not Skip Berman.

You wouldn’t think it’s much of a criticism to point out that your current coach is not quite as good as the greatest coach in the sport’s history, but the legend of Skip is often used to diminish Mainieri’s accomplishments.

Seven consecutive national seeds. Seven Super Regional appearances. Five trips to Omaha. One national title. To say nothing of his success in the SEC and regular season. That is one hell of a resume.

But it’s not enough, and it never will be enough. Not when you’re being compared to a guy with five national titles in ten years. So Mainieri’s flaws as a head coach get magnified and the dissected over and over again. That’s in the job description.

Mainieri is great at big-picture things, and he has this program running like a fine-tuned machine. He recruits like hell, develops talent, and always has the team in the mix for Omaha. Ask South Carolina how easy that is to sustain.

However, the fly in the ointment has always been his game management. Mainieri has struggled with bullpen management and he is not quite the motivator Skip was. While Bertman’s teams all seemed to peak in June, Mainieri’s team seem to press a little too hard, like they can feel the burden of expectations.

On Saturday night, that burden was pressing down especially hard on the home dugout. LSU swept Mississippi St in Starkville to close out the season, but now at home, in the Supers, when it really counts… well, the team was struggling. And the knives were out.

Down 1-0 in the 7th inning, it was same old, same old. A Mainieri-coached LSU team suddenly saw the offense evaporate when the pressure got high. Twice, LSU had left two runners on without plating a run. A team that struggled to find baserunners had hit into double plays in six innings.

Then, LSU started a rally in the 7th. A leadoff single and then a walk got LSU two runners on with nobody out. More importantly, it chased Pilkington from the game. Papierski, who has been swinging a hot bat, stepped up to the plate. And Mainieri took the bat out of his hand.

Papierski bunted the runners over, sacrificing an out. Mainieri put the pressure on freshman Jake Slaughter, who has been in and out of the lineup this year. While Skip always pulled the right lever, Mainieri never could. Slaughter flew out to shallow center, and LSU sent Beau Jordan, the only LSU player with at least 100 at bats and zero stolen bases. It was a close play, but Jordan was out at the plate.

And the LSU fanbase exploded. This was everything wrong with Mainieri in one play. He had the wrong player up, skipped over the hot bat, and didn’t pinch run for his slowest player. He sent the man because he had already given up the out, and didn’t trust the top of his order to get the hit with two outs to drive them in. It smelled of desperation.

State tacked on two insurance runs, and another chapter in the book of Paul Ain’t Skip seemed complete. Until it wasn’t.

Kramer Robertson electrified the crowd with a walk. Yes, a walk electrified the crowd. And Kramer is a perfect example of Mainieri’s big picture coaching. He left Robertson off of the Omaha roster two years ago, and while it wounded Kramer and he considered transferring, the move paid off. Robertson stayed on and used that as motivation to bring the team back to Omaha.

In the middle of the rally in the 8th, Mainieri called for a hit and run. With a runner on first and one out, Mainieri sent Watson in motion to grab the go-ahead run. The hit and run is a low-percentage play, and when it fails, it fails spectacularly. Only it didn’t fail. Jordan poked the ball through the gap left by the second baseman, just like you draw it up.

If the call doesn’t work, it’s desperate. Just like the sac fly. Instead, it’s genius. Mainieri pulled the right lever, the runner moved to third without sacrificing an out, and Papeirski drove it home with a long fly ball. Suddenly, LSU had a 4-3 lead headed to the 9th inning. Such is the fine line between being the goat and being a genius.

It was here Mainieri made what was perhaps the gutsiest call of his career. He left Hunter Newman in the pen and left Zack Hess in the game. Newman has a miniscule 1.07 ERA. He has 10 saves on the season. He is not just the nominal closer, he is The Closer.

When a team goes up by one run and goes into the final inning with that lead to protect, the coach calls for the closer. It’s a rote move. Every single college coach would bring in their star closer, as would every MLB manager. He’s been your star player in the bullpen, but almost as important, it inoculates you from criticism.

If your closer comes in and blows the lead, it’s not the coach’s fault. It’s the closer’s fault. Not one person would have laid blame at Mainieri’s feet. If you leave in a freshman, even one who was dealing gas like Hess, ignoring the senior closer with an ERA around one, and you lose… then it’s your fault.

Mainieri had just gotten the LSU fanbase to forget about the 7th inning, and now he stuck his head into the lion’s mouth again. If this move didn’t work out, it would be all Mainieri’s fault. It would be another instance of how he can’t manage the bullpen in a tight game. And don’t think for one second he didn’t know it.

Paul Mainieri went all in. Sending the runner in the 7th wasn’t desperation, it was aggression. He is pulling no punches as he knows this is the team that is his best shot to win another national title. He’s taking risks and pushing everything forward. And maybe that is desperate, but then desperate is what this team needs.

Perhaps even more importantly, he’s giving the players cover to fail. If Slaughter doesn’t execute the sac fly, or Jordan can’t place the hit and run correctly, or if Hess blow the lead in the ninth… it’s not on them. All of the criticism, all of the blame belongs to Mainieri.

He’s taken the burden of expectations and placed all of them on himself. The players are free to take risks and play their hardest. If this team fails to bring home the title in Omaha, all of the blame lands on Mainieri and no one else.

That is an amazing job of leadership. The headlines yesterday were full of praise for the players, as it should be. They get all of the credit if they win, and none of the blame if they lose. That’s the dynamic Mainieri created in Game One. It was a masterful example of motivation and leadership.

Worthy of the heir to Skip Bertman.