Last Modified: Thursday, May 31, 2012 7:52 PM
BATON ROUGE — LSU is saying all the right things, of course, but on the surface it would not appear that Louisiana-Monroe would be of much concern to the Tigers for today’s opening round of the NCAA baseball tournament.
The Tigers, hosting an NCAA regional for the first time in three years after sitting out the tournament altogether last year, are 21-1 when playing in-state schools in the baseball regionals.
The Tigers are 8-0 when opening a regional against Louisiana schools.
What’s more, the one regional loss — to Louisiana-Lafayette in the second round in 2002 — was only a minor inconvenience as LSU bounced back to beat the Ragin’ Cajuns in back-to-back games to advance on to super regionals.
So, of course, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “The worst thing we could possibly do would be to take (ULM) lightly.”
He forgets, perhaps, that the top-seeded Tigers (43-16) are 3-0 against the No. 4 Warhawks in past regional play, including a 21-0 shellacking in 2000.
And he insists that he means no disrespect to ULM (31-28) by holding back staff ace Kevin Gausman (10-1, 2.84 ERA), who was named first-team All-American on Thursday, for what usually turns out to be the key game of the regional on Saturday.
That would match tonight’s winner against the winner of today’s other game, the 2 p.m. contest between No. 2 seed Oregon State (38-18) and No. 3 seed Belmont (39-22).
Mainieri, instead, will go with freshman Aaron Nola (6-4, 3.93), who should be well rested after pitching two perfect innings in last week’s SEC tournament.
“I’ve never looked at Aaron as if he’s a freshman,” Mainieri said. “He’s been around the field for so many years watching his brother (Austin Nola, the senior shortstop) … it’s as though he’s not truly a freshman. He knows what it takes here because he’s seen it.”
“I get to finally experience it from a player’s view,” said Aaron Nola. “I’m pumped about it.”
It is different, Mainieri said, once the postseason rolls around, particularly with LSU back in its familiar role as regional host.
“The expectations here at LSU are through the roof — Omaha or bust,” Mainieri said. “But I enjoy the postseason. It’s a grind (the regular season), but when you get to the postseason, it’s fun.”
“I think everybody is just kind of anxious,” said left fielder Raph Rhymes, the nation’s leading hitter (.459). “It’s kind of like opening night again. It starts a whole new season. I think we are ready to get it going.”
Rhymes, who joined Gausman on the Collegiate Baseball All-American first team on Thursday, will be playing against his hometown team.
“I know a bunch of guys on their team and I know they are excited,” he said. “Alex Box Stadium is going to be packed.”
“We’re just going to let it rip,” said right fielder Mason Katz, who leads the team with 11 home runs. “In big games, that’s our mentality. We play loose and have fun. We’re going to stick with that.”
The Warhawks made the tournament by winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament over Florida Atlantic on conference player of the year Jeremy Sy’s three-run homer.
Mainieri noted that this will be the third time LSU has hosted a regional on his watch.
“Clearly they are the best four seed that we will have faced,” Mainieri said. “The Sun Belt Conference champion, they’re a legitimately qualified team that is capable of beating anybody in our field.”
LSU hasn’t played the Warhawks at all since 2010 (an 18-7 win), but there will be a familiar face on the mound for ULM.
Warhawks coach Jeff Schexnaider will start Randy Zeigler (5-6, 3.65), who was on LSU’s 2009 national championship team but threw only three innings that year. He went to a junior college the next year, then transferred to ULM last season.
Game 1 — No. 3 Belmont (39-22) vs. No. 2 Oregon State (38-18), 2 p.m.
Game 2 — No. 4 Louisiana-Monroe (31-28) vs. No. 1 LSU (43-16), 7 p.m.
Game 3 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 2 p.m.
Game 4 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 7 p.m.
Game 5 — Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1:30 p.m.
Game 6 — Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 6:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 6:30 p.m., if necessary