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Monday, June 16, 2008

Omaha-itis hits Tigers

OMAHA, Neb. - For a moment there, everything looked perfect for the LSU baseball team on a cool, picturesque Sunday night at Rosenblatt Stadium. Leadoff hitter Michael Hollander, who had only five home runs all season and had not hit one over his previous 23 games, launched one over the left field fence for a 1-0 lead over North Carolina.

Unfortunately, North Carolina ace Alex White allowed only three more hits into the seventh inning. LSU starter Ryan Verdugo, meanwhile, allowed 10 hits and six runs in just three-and-two-thirds innings. Reliever Paul Bertuccini wild pitched in a run.

Louis Coleman, who has been nearly flawless for weeks, gave up three hits and a run.

Blake Martin, who has been LSU's No. 2 starter often this season, gave up a run and a hit in just two-thirds of an inning.

The Tigers made only one error officially, but they had trouble in the outfield and they didn't make big infield plays when they were there. Blake Dean went 1-for-5, registering one or fewer hits in a game for just the third time in nine games. The usually dangerous bottom of LSU's order - Leon Landry, Derek Helenihi and Ryan Schimpf - went 1-for-12 with three strikeouts.

LSU was clearly not itself. LSU looked like a tourist, a greenhorn. The Tigers looked like first timers, which they are. For the first time in LSU's rich history in Omaha and for the first time since its first time, not one player on the roster had already been here. Every other trip to Omaha, except obviously for the first one in 1986, came after no more than three years since the previous one.

Yes, LSU was afflicted with Omaha-itis.

"This was my second time here," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who took Notre Dame here in 2002. "It does feel different."

The Tigers, who were scheduled to practice at 2 p.m. today, will play better Tuesday at 1 p.m. Unfortunately, so will Rice, which lost 17-5 to Fresno State on Sunday afternoon. Rice is full of players with Omaha experience as it is in its third straight trip to steak heaven and fifth this decade. Often in the loser's bracket, a team gets another greenhorn. Not this time.

It could again be two and barbecue for LSU, but this team is very accustomed to playing under a lot of pressure. The Tigers have basically been in playoff games since it fell to 6-11-1 in the Southeastern Conference back on April 20 against Georgia. They faced elimination last week down 7-2 to California Irvine in the eighth inning of the Super Regional.

If it does not get by Rice tomorrow, the season will still be a great one because the Tigers had been below average for the previous two seasons, they won 23 in a row and they closed Alex Box in classic style. The 2003 and 2004 LSU teams that each went 0-2 in Omaha were veteran teams with players who had been to Omaha.

The good news is if LSU can beat Rice, it has enough pitching to continue to advance in the loser's bracket and make this trip interesting. There are not any great pitchers like a White, but there are enough to win if the rest of the team plays better than it did Sunday.

LSU needs to throw away the films of classic LSU trips to Omaha in 1996 and 1997. It needs to watch the film from last week. It just needs to win one game and see what it's like to like be a native like me.


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