Looking for Omaha: Despite walking back comments, Vols likely to give Mainieri, LSU rocky welcome`

Scooter Hobbs

Don’t expect Tennessee Vols fans to have an orange Welcome Wagon waiting on LSU tonight when the Tigers arrive for the Knoxville Super Regional.

In fact, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri’s first order of business after arriving for practice Friday at Tennessee’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium was to apologize to Rocky Top.

The teams open the best-of-3 series tonight with a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series on the line, a rematch of a regular-season sweep by the No. 3 Volunteers (48-16) in the same venue.

It didn’t take long after LSU (38-23) unexpectedly punched its ticket to the super regional for the UT faithful to dig up Mainieri’s comments from a few days after that frustrating weekend for the Tigers, in which they lost the three games by a total of four runs, two by walk-off.

He used words like “nasty” to describe the atmosphere, and that “the other team was not handling things with a lot of class, quite frankly.”

The revised version on the eve of this weekend’s showdown is that it was meant as a compliment.

Or, as LSU center fielder Drew Bianco recalled.“- Just fans being fans.”

But Mainieri’s take was that although “I stuck my foot in my mouth and made some comments that I really didn’t think about,” what he was really saying was his team wasn’t ready at the time to handle its first Southeastern Conference road trip.

“I didn’t mean to criticize the people here. A handful of college kids, they were riding Tré Morgan pretty hard. I wasn’t so much criticizing them as much as him not handling it very well. He had to learn how to handle it.

“Go to any SEC ballpark, including (LSU’s) Alex Box Stadium, and you’re going to hear fans saying things to the other team trying to distract them and get them out of their game. It’s what makes it fun. Our players needed to learn how to handle it. That just happened to be the first experience they had in the league.”

Whether the apology was enough to placate Tennessee fans is doubtful. And the stadium, which was coronavirus pandemic-limited to 25 percent of its 4,283-seat capacity for that trip in March, will be overflowing for this far more important series.

Mainieri said that’s actually better — if it’s only a thousand or so, you hear every word; when it’s full it’s all just a murmur.

“They added some bleachers, I see. Looks like it’s going to be a raucous crowd. It’s going to be college baseball at its finest,” he said.

But that won’t the only difference.

“I think we’re a completely different team than we were back then,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll win. I just feel like there are a lot of things different about our team now than there was then.”

The Tigers won their other four SEC road series, including the full, crazy house at Ole Miss and two consecutive games against Oregon on the Ducks’ home field to get to this point.

“I just feel like our team is more hardened,” Mainieri said.

LSU won’t start its usual series-opening ace Landon Marceaux tonight because he pitched twice last weekend at Oregon.

Instead, senior righthander Ma’Khail Hilliard (6-0, 4.56 ERA) will step in with Marceaux (7-6, 2.44) going in Sunday’s game and, if it gets to a third game, A.J. Labas (4-2, 5.42) finishing up.

“The extra day’s rest will help Landon,” Mainieri said. “Game 1 or Game 2, they’re equally important as far as I’m concerned. You’re going to go up against the other team’s best pitchers.”

The crowd isn’t likely to have an effect on Hilliard, a senior who barely shows a pulse when on the mound.

It’s quite a turnaround for Hilliard, who lost his starter’s role last season and wasn’t in the weekend rotation at the start of the season.

But he came on strong when reinserted late in the season and was a big part of the Tigers’ late surge.

“It feels amazing,” Hilliard said Friday. “It’s crazy that you get these opportunities run into bumps and I’m happy to get this chance.”

””

Paul Mainieri will try to postpone his retirement another weekend as he takes LSU to Knoxville to play No. 3 Tennessee in a super regional, two wins from returning to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Vasha Hunt / Special to the American Press

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