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Veteran Focus, Youthful Skill

This team has found the right formula at the right time

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-LSU vs Oregon State
You know who has been awesome? Papierski.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

LSU has had great teams throughout this decade, but this is the Tigers’ first trip to the final series since the program last won the national title in 2009. Most programs would kill for an eight year title series drought to even count as a cause for concern, but that is the standard of expectations in Baton Rouge.

Previous teams failed to reach this point for a variety of reasons, and to be fair, each season is different. There hasn’t been some sort of systemic problem that has kept LSU from the final weekend. It’s just that there are a lot of good teams, and you can’t win it every year.

So what made this team different? A lot of attention has been paid to the four players who turned down offer sheets from pro clubs to come back for one more run at the title. And while that is a nice story, it’s not like the seniors have been tearing up Omaha.

Kramer Robertson especially has been the focus of slump talk, finally breaking out on Saturday, as if to spite all of the fans who speculated maybe he needed to drop down in the order due to four games in which things didn’t go his way. Cole Freeman went 0 for 10 in three games against Oregon St, so he’s enjoyed Kramer taking the bulk of the heat.

If anything has carried LSU through Omaha, it’s been the freshmen. Jake Slaughter spent a good portion of the season bouncing in and out of the lineup, and he’s settled into a productive bat when the team needed production at the bottom of the order. Josh Smith’s home run keyed the 3-1 win over Oregon St which made this run to the final series possible. Zach Watson has found a power stroke in the postseason and has become maybe the Tigers’ best hitter this month.

And that’s not even getting into Zack Hess, who has officially arrived in Omaha. He’s been inconsistent this season, but he found his form at the exact right time, and he is displaying some ungodly stuff as he has turned the final two innings into his playground. The games have been close, but he’s effectively turned LSU games into a seven-inning game.

However, I don’t want to completely rule out the power of experience. On Saturday, Oregon St hitters pouted and threw tantrums over the umpire’s terrible strike zone. LSU, on the other hand, took the lead from Michael Papierski, who informed his teammates of the reality of the outside strike in the first inning. LSU hitters knew to go after the outside pitch, as it wouldn’t be called a ball. Papierski kept sitting up further and further outside, expanding the umpire’s already poor zone.

They played smart. Oregon St might be the more talented team. Their pitching staff is ungodly, and they had hitters who could hurt you up and down the lineup. But LSU played like a team that knew the realities of high-profile games, particularly that sometimes the umpire wants to go full Frank Drebin. Instead of raging at how unfair it was, LSU adjusted their gameplan, on the fly, to the reality of how the game was being called.

There was no panic in this team. LSU suffered one of the biggest losses in program history in Omaha, and then calmly climbed their way out of the loser’s bracket. Because a 12-run loss counts the same as a one-run loss: it’s just one loss. There was no hangover, and the team didn’t dwell on the mistakes of yesterday. Once the game was lost, it was gone. LSU didn’t keep reliving Monday night.

This isn’t the best team LSU has brought to Omaha, but it is the most even-keeled. There is no Rally Possum or can of corn for good luck. OK, there’s a Rally Mulkey in the stands, stupid haricuts on their heads, and C-3PO in the dugout for some reason, but this team plays with a lot less emotion. Which seems like a bad thing, but because of it, they don’t seem to get too up or too down. Which is crucial in tournament play.

Now, LSU goes into Game One of the final series forced to start Johnny Wholestaff, praying they can make it through tonight so they can get back to Poche’ and Lange. It’s a daunting challenge, and LSU is a decided underdog in Game One of this series. Somehow, I doubt they’ll show any signs of panic.