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Once More Unto The Breach

LSU’s veteran nucleus eyes one last crack at a dogpile in Omaha.

Gus Stark/LSU Athletics

Last week between regionals and super regionals I wrote an article called The Kids Are Alright where I highlighted the emergence of LSU’s freshman down the stretch. While everything I wrote there still rings true, make no mistake - this is still the veteran’s team.

Every member of the Fab Four have been drafted in addition to Alex Lange and Michael Papierski, who are both expected to depart to the professional ranks when the season is over.

But the season isn’t over yet and there is still work to be done, and you can bet your bottom dollar that this veteran core will lead the charge.

At the front and center is Kramer Robertson, who is the emotional leader of the team in addition to one of the biggest offensive contributors. Pressing pause and looking at the big picture, that in itself is crazy. In 2014 and 2015, Robertson began the season as a starter but was squeezed out in both years. In a team full of Kade Scivicques and Alex Bregmans, Robertson was an obvious hole in the lineup and at times it seemed like he carried himself as such.

And then in 2016 Bregman departed and Robertson got a look at shortstop and never looked back. But something even more remarkable happened, he became a vocal leader for a youthful team that was replacing eight starters and needed one in the worst way. And then in 2017 as a senior he only improved his role. Kramer is now soft-spoken and confident instead of fiery and slightly unstable with his emotions.

“Not too long ago in my sophomore year I was here for the team to celebrate and go to Omaha,” Robertson said following game two of the Baton Rouge Super Regional. “But unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the trip. The next day, June 8, Coach told me to pack my bags and I went home. I remember driving home and feeling like I was a failure. I was looking back on my first two years here and I just felt like I had let people down. I knew I had two decisions to make, I could make the easy decision and go somewhere else and see what happens with my career or I could gut it out and try to come back here and prove to people that I could do it. I didn’t want to prove the people who said I couldn’t do it right by making the easy choice.”

His double play partner at second, Cole Freeman, transferred in from Delgado and has only been at LSU for two years, but just from talking to him you’d think he was a redshirt senior in his fifth year at LSU. The man with the heavy New Orleans accent who goes by “Drank” himself has overcome several hurdles, most due to his relatively small stature at 5’9” 179 pounds.

“I had the opportunity of a lifetime to live out a childhood dream when everybody said I wasn’t going to be able to do it because I was too small or I wasn’t physically blessed,” Freeman said late Sunday night. “I kept that in my heart and I kept pushing and I’m the luckiest kid in the world right now.”

But Freeman is a NJCAA Gold Glove winner and, in addition to playing clean defense, he leads the team in batting with a .327 average and a .431 OBP after leading the team in both categories last year. This year he was the recipient of the #8 jersey, handed out only to the player that best “exemplifies the spirit of the LSU program”.

Greg Deichmann came into his own in 2016 as first baseman and was the only player to hit double digit home runs. In 2017 he switched to right field and only improved both in the field and at the plate, becoming one of the most feared hitters in the country with 19 bombs to his credit and the ability to go to his opposite field when he has to, posting a .606 slugging percent while walking 48 times to bolster his OBP to .429.

Deichmann’s raw power was realized by the Oakland Athletics early in the second round of the MLB draft and if anybody is going to hit multiple home runs in Omaha, it’s Deichmann. But Deichmann is every bit as soft-spoken and confident as Robertson and carried himself just the same.

Jared Poche’ lasted only 2.1 innings in Sunday night’s Super Regional-clinching defeat of Mississippi State and was not in line for the win that would tie him for LSU’s all-time career wins record with Scott Schultz, but he has the chance to reach that record in Omaha. Time and time again Poche’ found himself in a jam this year and seemed to always work himself out of it. Poche’ is as crafty as they come, a left-handed pitcher that induces a lot of innocent ground balls and knows how to make batters get themselves out.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alex Lange is as overpowering as they come, posting a 3.35 K/BB (134/40) with a starter-leading 2.92 ERA in 111 innings pitched. It doesn’t matter if Lange is shoving or getting shelled, he is going to go deep into the game if the situation allows for it and save the bullpen as much as humanly possible. The Chicago Cubs have recognized this and drafted him at the tail end of the first round of the MLB draft. He will throw LSU’s first game in the College World Series and will have to be the bellcow for LSU in Omaha. His only other appearance in Omaha was solid, where he threw a complete game against Cal State Fullerton and allowed three runs, all earned in the first inning on six hits while walking two and striking out 10 to keep LSU alive in an elimination game. For LSU to have a real shot at a title, they will need two more starts just like that from him, if not better.

His battery mate Michael Papierski is a player that I firmly believe will go down as one of, if not the best defensive catchers ever to wear purple and gold. Papierski struggled early on but ended the regular season on absolute fire and is as big of a threat to coax a walk (42 on the year) as he is to take you deep (eight home runs). It’s unknown if Papierski will return, but there is a strong chance the following week to week and half is his last on the team. But he has emerged as a key cog in the LSU lineup during their current 15 game win streak, and as he goes so does LSU.

And then there is the closer Hunter Newman, who is flirting with a sub-one ERA, holding 10 saves to his credit this year. Newman is as solid of a rock in the back end of the bullpen as possible.

The ‘Fab Four” returned to Baton Rouge for their senior seasons with the shared goal of avenging their 2016 Super Regional loss and making it to Omaha. They accomplished that by sweeping Mississippi State in the Super Regionals. And they got their moment in the bottom of the 9th when Robertson, Freeman, and Deichmann came out of the game and walked off the field of Alex Box Stadium for the last time.

But the season is not over. Not yet. They made it to Omaha, so they may as well win the whole thing. But it won’t be easy, they’re in a bracket with the juggernauts themselves Oregon State, who will not lose double digit games this year even if they go 0-2 in Omaha. LSU will have to win five games to clinch the school’s seventh national title and they will have to do it against seven of the best teams in college baseball. It’s not an easy task.

But it is a task that the Tigers’ veterans are up to.

“This is what it’s like in Omaha,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said, gesturing to the press conference room. “Media coverage, big crowds. They’ve played in front of a lot of big crowds. National television. They have played on national television. Tough teams who play in the SEC. We play all of those teams every day. The bases will be 90 feet apart. The pitcher’s mound will be 60‐feet, six inches. These guys will be fine. It won’t be too big for anybody. They know what’s at stake when you go there, but that doesn’t mean that you have to try any harder or do anything differently than you’ve done it before. I think we are going to have a very confident, relaxed and yet aggressive team.”

“Like coach always says, you just take it one game at a time,” Papierski said. “We’ll be ready and we’ll get the game plan from Micah Gibbs and Alan Dunn will take care of the pitchers and we’ll be ready to go.”

“We’ll be ready to go,” Kramer assured. “We’re not done yet. This isn’t the end. We’re ready to go.”