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For Better Or Worse, LSU Rode The Wave

A look back at LSU’s incredible up and down 2017 season.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs LSU Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Congrats on the great season.

At face value, it’s a sincere congratulation on something every team enters February looking for.

But with added context, it’s the five words any coach or player don’t want to hear the most.

It’s what is said to them after their last press conference in the NCAA tournament following their elimination. It’s always sincere and never a back-handed compliment but champions usually receive just a general “congratulations” and the specificity of the congrats usually means the team fell short of their ultimate goal.

But I’m not sure if LSU had a “great” season. Oregon State had a great season. LSU had a roller-coaster season, full of ups and downs, twists and turns. No, LSU did not have a “great” season, they had an unforgettable one, for better or worse.

The team’s hot 8-1 start ended in the first weekend of March when Alex Lange had what was to that point the worst outing of his stellar LSU career and the Tigers lost the highly-touted matchup with TCU in the Houston College Classic. The Tigers beat Baylor in game two but lost a stunner to Texas Tech late in the game for their first series loss of the season. To make matters worse, Doug Norman was lost on the season with an elbow injury.

LSU responded by winning eight of ten and clean sweeping two weekends, but dropped head-scratching losses to McNeese and a second to UNO in the midweeks. Those concerns were erased with the Tigers’ 22-9 drubbing Georgia to open SEC play. Antoine Duplantis set an LSU single-game hits record by going five for five and Kramer Robertson tied the single game record for doubles. LSU opened the SEC slate with a bang and finished out the opening weekend with a sweep before dispatching future NCAA tournament opponents Southeastern Louisiana.

But for every high, a low followed like a wave. Hunter Newman had a back problem emerge and all of a sudden LSU was without two veteran bullpen arms. Zack Hess was thrust into the closer role, which would come up large later in the year. LSU followed the Georgia series with dropped series to Florida after Lange came out on the wrong side of a 1-0 pitchers duel and Jared Poche’ got rocked before a late comeback on Sunday steered the Tigers away from a sweep. The Tigers dropped the midweek to Tulane before losing the series to Texas A&M on a ninth-inning home run.

LSU used a monstrous late game rally to even the Arkansas series for freshman Eric Walker, who for the first time all season, really proved his worth in a tough-as-nails outing where he went the distance in a narrow 2-0 victory for the Tigers. He would shine again the next weekend when LSU took the series from Ole Miss in the rubber match.

And then LSU was roughed up by Kentucky, losing the series while being outscored 25-11 before returning to Louisiana to be swept on the season by Tulane.

LSU’s season had been fluctuating wildly to the point, the last weekend in April, and appeared to be on a downswing. Kramer Robertson wasn’t having it.

“I haven’t performed in conference the way that I should,” Robertson said to reporters before departing to Tuscaloosa for their series with Alabama. “I think that’s having a lot to do with us struggling. I understand it’s a team sport, but when you see your senior leader, when he sucks, it rubs off on the whole team. Put this on me. I need to play better and get my act together. When I do that, I think it’s going to rub off on the whole team.”

Robertson was one of the “Fab Four”, a collection of seniors that included Cole Freeman, Greg Deichmann, and Poche’ who all spurned the major league draft to return to LSU for their senior season in chase of one more shot at a championship. Out of the four, Robertson was without a doubt the emotional and vocal leader of the team.

And his drawing a line in the sand worked wonders for LSU.

The Tigers would sweep Alabama and take the series from South Carolina before finishing the regular season by sweeping Auburn and Mississippi State. LSU closed the season by winning 12 of 14 and 11 of 12 to clinch a SEC West and SEC Regular Season Co-Championship with Florida, of all teams. LSU swept clean through the SEC tournament, where they run-ruled Kentucky and South Carolina in back-to-back games to push the form to 16 wins in 18 games dating back to Robertson’s bold comments. LSU won the school’s 12th SEC Tournament Championship after looking like an underperforming ballclub for stretches of the season, and more importantly, they did it behind Eric Walker, who once again pitched out of his freshman mind against Arkansas.

And for LSU’s white hot finish, they were rewarded with a sixth straight national seed, being viewed as the fourth-best team in the country. It was dicey at times, but LSU again swept through the Baton Rouge Regional to push the form to 19 of 21 games and the winning streak to 16 games.

And then after the rain delayed things a bit, the news broke late at night that would begin one of the most hotly contested Super Regionals in recent memory.

Mississippi State, coached by former LSU assistant Andy Cannizaro and what should be the Golden Spikes award winner Brent Rooker, would come back to Baton Rouge for the Baton Rouge Super Regional, which received prime time billing on ESPN on Saturday and Sunday night. Game one required a dramatic eighth inning four-run rally to put LSU ahead by a single run, which Hess would close out. The rally was started by a hell of an at-bat by Robertson, who drew a leadoff walk.

The rain would delay the celebration until late in the morning, but LSU drubbed Mississippi State in game two, 14-4, to clinch a trip to Omaha. The Fab Four had their moment to come off to a standing ovation and celebrate that moment late into the night.

Twenty-one of twenty-three. Eighteen in a row.

Make that 22 of 24 and 19 in a row following yet another eighth inning rally over Florida State in the opening round of the College World Series. It seemed like LSU had gotten hot at the right time and was nigh unstoppable.

And then they played the best team in the country. Oregon State completely embarrassed LSU by taking advantage of Tiger mistakes and outclassing them as a whole to a tune of 13-1. To make matters worse, Walker was shut down for the rest of the tournament with forearm soreness. It was humbling for LSU, but the Tigers got out in front of Florida State early and stayed ahead, eliminating the Seminoles and setting up a revenge match against Oregon State. LSU had to play the best team in the country, who had single digit losses and have yet to lose back to back games and beat them twice.

No problem. Behind juggernaut performances from Lange and Caleb Gilbert, LSU absolutely shut down Oregon State and ended what is probably the best season ever had by a college baseball team.

Twenty-four of 27 going into the College World Series final. Often a big deal is made about getting hot at the right time, and it seemed like LSU had nailed it completely. The Tigers were not favored to win game one, but they had the pitching advantage in games two and three if it was necessary.

Sadly, it wasn’t. LSU fought valiantly behind a piecemeal bullpen start of Russell Reynolds, Nick Bush, and Hunter Newman, but fell just a run short of toppling Brady Singer and Florida in game one. And then, there was the heartbreak of game two. Having the perfect situation twice in a row and failing to score while committing costly errors early and late to keep them out of it.

24 of 29 to end it. It’s something every coach will happily accept if you offer it in February, but this time it was just short of good enough. The wave continued throughout the season, wire to wire, full of ups followed by downs and vice versa. It just so happened that the season ended on the downturn of the wave.

And the result was that Paul Mainieri was told “congrats on the great season”.

But the sting of the final two losses will eventually fade enough to where we will be able to look back upon the season and appreciate it for the highs of Deichmann hitting a home run over the Intimidator and the lows of LSU’s head scratching midweek losses. The Florida and Mississippi State series will be remembered in the same stride. LSU didn’t come away with the school’s seventh national title, but the fire was burning brightly before it was extinguished.

Next season, we will all look up at the Intimidator and wonder what if? What if Jake Slaughter slides through the bag? What if Robertson beats the throw home? What if the wind isn’t blowing in? What if Walker is available to pitch? It’s unavoidable and bound to happen. But if baseball teaches you anything, it’s that the lows and heartbreak only exist to make the high of winning so much better. And LSU will win again, soon. Remember this season for the Baton Rouge Super Regional and the filth displayed by Hess, but remember the heartbreak. Keep it with you and remember it for when LSU is back on top. The wave will keep on keeping on and we’re on the ride for the long run.

And for what it’s worth, the last time an LSU team closed out the regular season with an insane win streak before flaming out in Omaha, they won the national title the following year.