All Or Nothing

Rick Sarro Thursday, July 20, 2017 Comments Off on All Or Nothing
All Or Nothing

I’ve always felt there should be a high sense of pride and accomplishment if you’ve earned the opportunity to play for a national or state championship.

If by chance you exit stage right without claiming the title, there should still be high praise for the journey and passage onto the championship podium.

I’m not saying a runner up trophy is something akin to a moral victory. But that depends on the team and the situation endured. I’ve known many coaches and players who simply don’t buy into the moral victory in sports claim.

I have always disagreed.

Any goodwill and warm fuzzies over just playing for a championship and coming up short are good for many teams — just not for the LSU baseball Tigers.

These Tigers expect to contend and win a College World Series national title most every year. Those impossibly high expectations are commonplace in this storied program. The team earned six national crowns between 1991 and 2009. A rich heritage of winning, fostered by former head coach and legend Skip Bertman, will do that for you.

Diehard LSU fans who bleed purple and gold (are there any other kind?) don’t travel through the heartland of the Midwest to Omaha with hopes of just avoiding the losers bracket.

Everyone associated with LSU baseball, once they’re Omaha-bound, looks to carry that NCAA trophy back to Baton Rouge.

I’m not here to say that’s wrong or unrealistic. Once at the CWS, the Tigers’ odds of getting to the championship series have been pretty darn good. In fact, LSU was a perfect six for six in their previous championship appearances. If you’re keeping track, that’s six titles in six attempts. That kind of success breeds confidence, and, yes, a pinch of arrogance.

I’m not faulting anyone for beating their collective chests. LSU is a five-star, elite national program. They get some of the best players in the country and make many of them into Major League talent. They’re always near or at the top of the SEC standings year in and year out. And they’re consistently cemented in the national rankings.

All that and more got the Tigers back into the CWS finals recently. But the magic, Wild Thing haircuts, wayward beach balls, laser sharp pitching and timely home runs hit a wall called the Florida Gators.

That championship series record is now just nearly perfect at six out of seven.

In any other program, that’s the kind of stuff legends and lore are made of. Grandpas sit on the porch and tell stories of how the team is one of the best ever.

Not so much at LSU.

The porch chatter among LSU supporters in Louisiana will center on the what-ifs and could-have-beens and how one dang blasted interference call cost the Tigers a true shot at a seventh national championship.

And maybe things would have been different if Josh Smith’s run had gone into the books and tied Florida at two-all in the seventh inning in the second game; if Jake Slaughter’s hard slide into second base hadn’t gone outside the base path and he hadn’t clipped the legs of the Gators’ second baseman while trying to turn a double play.

Suppose Kramer Robertson hadn’t been gunned down in the eighth inning trying to score from third on an infield hit to first base. Maybe the hard-hit balls by former Barbe star Beau Jordan and Zach Watson would have dropped in instead of dropping into a Gator’s outfield glove.

Maybe LSU would have scored twice from third base with no outs late in the game and turned the momentum their way.

After losing that Monday opener in a tight 4-3 game, the Tigers only needed to force a game three with ace Alex Lange on the mound to send Florida home trophy-less in what would have been their fourth crack at the crown.

Unfortunately, Slaughter, a freshman first baseman, did slide into Florida’s Dalton Guthrie on that game-changing seventh inning play. Smith’s run was called back on a baseball rule that should go under the heading of “severe punishment that doesn’t fit the crime.”

The Tigers remained behind 2-1 as the strikeouts mounted and ended that fateful inning.

Robertson’s aggressive baserunning ended a viable threat. Those promising line drives to centerfield went for naught, and the mojo and stamina of freshman closer Zach Hess faded into the Omaha night, and Florida ended up winning 6-1 to lay claim to the school’s first-ever College World Series title.

The anguish was apparent on the LSU players’ faces, and in particular on those of Slaughter and Robertson. The star players like Porche and Lange, who bypassed turning pro to return and chase that seventh championship, were also feeling the pain of defeat and wiping away tears.

Head coach Paul Maninieri, who has one of those six national titles to his credit from 2009, spoke of the cruelty of the game; of being snake bit at third base; and said, “sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.”

The corners were awfully confounding for LSU, and those three head-scratcher errors over the first two innings might have been an omen that this just wasn’t going to be the year of the Tigers.

My belief was that if LSU had managed to take game one from the Gators, the series would have been pretty much locked up, with studs Porche and Lange set to pitch the next two nights. I didn’t expect the errors, the stranded runners and a Florida flamethrower by the name of Tyler Dyson.

It’s pretty clear LSU doesn’t have a monopoly on signing all the best arms below the Mason-Dixon line. Florida’s Brady Singer, Dyson and Alex Faedo are just as much Major League as anyone in purple and gold. It’s a testament to the Tigers’ skill and Maninieri’s game management that they came up one run short in the first game’s 4-3 final by using a hodgepodge of pitchers from the bullpen.

I know it may seem like a distant memory, but what LSU did to get to the championship round was nothing short of miraculous. Coming up from the loser’s bracket after getting thumped by No. 1 Oregon State 13-1 to beat those top-ranked Beavers not once but twice in two days to stave off elimination for a third time was remarkable even by LSU standards.

If the agony of losing didn’t wipe away all your memories of those two incredible games against Oregon State, let me remind you of a few of those amazing numbers.

LSU pitchers recorded 21 strikeouts over those two games and held a pretty potent OSU line-up to only five hits and a paltry two runs. They handed Oregon State their first back-to-back losses since May, 2016. This came against a team many national pundits were ready to knight as the best in the history of college baseball, based on that Herculean 56-4 record going into Omaha.

The fact that the Tigers sent a game Florida State team home again without sniffing a title for the 20th year and then rebounded to fight off elimination twice against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team leads me to think there was much more that was positive than negative coming out of T.D. Ameritrade Stadium.

It’s safe to say that because of their history and tradition, these Tigers will not bask in any glory from their Omaha run. But they should. You aren’t going to come out on top every year, even if you think you should and play well enough to do it.

The baseball gods just won’t allow it. And simply put, the Tigers didn’t play well enough.

Sports shouldn’t be an all or nothing experience. A championship chase can be pretty satisfying for most, even though many won’t remember who came in second.

These LSU players and the legion of fans will surely remember. And hopefully in time, they will find some joy and a sense of pride in what was a memorable year.

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