Tigers-baseball-coach

LSU Tigers head baseball coach Paul Mainieri

Something's missing, but not to worry. LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri isn't fooled.

He hasn't forgotten where he coaches.

So pay no heed to the relative lack of lofty expectations for the Tigers when the season starts tonight against Indiana.

Check the preseason polls — and there are plenty to choose from — and you won't find LSU anywhere in the top 10.

It doesn't get much better in the baseball conference that Skip Bertman basically invented.

The SEC preseason poll sees the Tigers tying for third in the West Division and LSU wasn't among the six teams that got at least one vote to win the overall title.

That's for outsiders to worry about, nothing for LSU to breathe a sigh of relief over.

In Alex Box Stadium, where LSU will surely lead the nation in attendance for a 25th consecutive year, the expectations never really change.

The minimum yearly requirement is a trip to Omaha for the College World Series and, for that matter, it's about high time the Tigers won another one of those things.

Mainieri knows it. He embraces it — no matter what the polls show, it's certainly always his expectations for any season.

One year he did come out with a sworn statement that the word "Omaha" wouldn't be used around the Box until the Tigers board the charter jet for the College World Series. He kept his word for about a week, too, which left bettors who had the "under" reaching for their wallets.

For LSU baseball, that's always the thing.

And it has some fans — including the Tigers ever-faithful "Cornfield Alumni" in Nebraska — getting a little antsy. The last two seasons have come and gone with the Tigers done for the season while the Omaha fortnight trudged on without them.

They were pretty good teams, too, with a core of players including Antoine Duplantis, Josh Smith and Zach Watson — none of whom are back this season.

LSU has been to Omaha with less, that's for sure.

Missing it this year would be only the second time on Mainieri's watch (joining 2010-12) that the Tigers have gone three years without the LSU flag being raised at Barrett's Barleycorn Pub & Grill in Omaha.

Maybe it's not as easy as the Tigers used to make it look.

But if LSU football can go 15-0 with a national championship built around high-tech offense, how tough can it be?

LSU baseball came of age in the 1990s, soothing the fan base's angst and pain during the Dark Ages of Tigers football.

But the NCAA's quintessential "baseball school" has won three football championships this century while getting one in baseball, Mainieri's lone title in 2009.

Mainieri said the football team didn't leave a hard act to follow. In fact, he out-and-out guaranteed that his team would win more than 15 games this season, although he said he's pretty sure they won't go undefeated.

He can be funny like that.

He also got as caught up as anybody in what the football Tigers were doing.

"I'm a college football fan and an LSU fan," he explained.

He had his first team meeting of the semester the afternoon after LSU beat Clemson in New Orleans.

"It didn't feel like baseball season," he said. "There was just such a euphoric feeling in the room from what the football team did. It has been an amazing year.

"LSU athletics has never been stronger. It is exciting to be around here. Now it's time for the baseball program to uphold its end of it as well."

Mainieri certainly isn't jealous. Football coach Ed Orgeron will throw out tonight's ceremonial first pitch. He'll throw it to one of his defensive backs, Mo Hampton, who's also a promising freshman outfielder for Mainieri.

Then the road to Omaha begins, with more trial and error than usual even for Mainieri, a born tinkerer of lineups and roles.

He'll fill out a lineup card tonight, but certainly not in ink. It figures to be a work in progress, with a new approach to hitting under volunteer coach Eddie Smith.

"I'm still waiting to see which players are going to rise among the others and make a statement," Mainieri said. "These next three weeks are going to be interesting to see."

Fortunately LSU should have the pitching to cover up a lot of offensive growing pains.

Some of them are even left-handers now that the Tigers' one-year experiment with a right-wing-only pitching staff — not by choice —is over. There will be at least three left-handers on this year's roster.

The pitching was fine last year — when it was healthy, which it seldom was. Mainieri spent the offseason studying how to better protect the arms and so far there hasn't been a sore arm on the embarrassingly deep staff.

"I think our pitching staff is going to be at a level that allows to win games even while we are learning about our team," Mainieri said.

He's probably right.

Still, to be honest, this looks like a young program that is a year away from making really big noise on the national scene.

But that won't change the expectations.

Beginning tonight.


Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

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