New season of baseball on tap
Finally, it’s time. LSU baseball at The Box.
And beer, too.
Yeah, the tents behind the stands down both base lines will sell beer and wine to the huddled masses for the first time when the Tigers open the season tonight against Louisiana-Monroe.
That may be the biggest noticeable change for this season — that, and the rare distraction of a relevant LSU basketball team by the time baseball throws its first pitch.
You can’t see the baseball field from where the beer taps are, and you can’t take your purchases back to your seats per SEC rule. But there will be TVs in the tents, so they figure to be popular gathering areas.
How much that cuts into the long-standing LSU tradition of ice chests stacked up close outside the outfield exits remains to be seen.
But otherwise, not much ever changes at Alex Box Stadium.
The fans, the players and most certainly head coach Paul Mainieri expect the long and winding season to end in Omaha at the College World Series with a national championship.
Just making it to Omaha is a lifetime achievement for most programs. At LSU, it’s the minimum season requirement.
The expectation will always be to bring home a national championship trophy.
But you already knew that.
It may not seem like it, but this season marks 10 years since LSU’s seventh and last national championship — so long ago the dog pile was in wonderful old Rosenblatt Stadium, not the shiny TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha.
Mainieri figured there’d be more by now, that they’d have to get a bigger billboard out in Alex Box’s right field to list them on “The Intimidator.”
And it’s certainly not like the program fell off the map. It’s still a regular visitor to Omaha — national runner-up just two seasons ago.
But, as Mainieri said, “I’m tired of not winning the last game of the year.”
He’s also vowed not to talk about it again until, per chance, the Tigers arrive at the CWS, which isn’t until mid-June.
That would be a change of pace for him, as he’s never been shy about holding forth about it. If he goes into coach-speak mode, we’ve all got some adjusting to do.
So we shall see how that works out.
This season the expectations are shared by just about everyone. College baseball has a glut of polls, but in the six I can find LSU is either the preseason national No. 1 or No. 2 (behind fellow SEC power Vanderbilt).
It’s what happens when you have the No. 1-rated recruiting class coming in and yet have trouble finding spots for them because three star players unexpectedly returned for their senior seasons — pitcher Zack Hess, along with outfielders Zach Watson and Antoine Duplantis.
It’s similar to what happened two years ago, which ended (don’t remind Mainieri) with a frustrating loss to Florida in the national championship series.
But you have to start somewhere so the Tigers get ULM tonight, followed by Army and Air Force the next two days.
Expectations may never change, but the lineup always does.
You can check Page B3 for a chart on the projected starting lineup. Pro tip: It’s not written in stone. It’s just a starting point.
Keep an eraser handy.
Mainieri could change his mind just before the first pitch.
But he is a born tinkerer. It’s may be his biggest strength as a coach. And if a player has something to offer the team, Mainieri will find a role for him to deliver it.
He has an uncanny knack for it.
It might mean blowing a game or two in February or March, but you can’t go to Omaha until June.
One suggestion: He has to find a spot for freshman Giovanni DiGiacomo on name value alone (preferably in the fourth inning when a lucky “junior announcer” takes over to announce the next batter).
But all the start of the season really means is that the evaluations start tonight. Mainieri will be wondering what if this and how come that and he might have a sudden epiphany on any pitch.
You might wonder, for instance, what such a veteran team with a near-embarrasing depth of pitching is doing running three freshmen out as starting pitchers in the first five games, two of three on opening weekend after Hess starts tonight.
Eric Walker, who might have been LSU’s best pitcher at the end of 2017, is back after sitting out last year with Tommy John surgery.
He didn’t get demoted. He’ll probably end up as the Sunday starter.
But he and Hess will both be on strict pitch counts, not likely to go more than four or five innings, and Mainieri doesn’t want two games in a weekend when he knows he’ll be going to the bullpen early and often.
Besides, there’s plenty of time to sort things out.
And it’s just the start. There will be much juggling and adjusting and fiddling as the season goes along.
You can bet a beer on it.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at email@example.com
Zach Watson surprised LSU by returning to school instead of opting to play professional baseball. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)