LSU coach Paul Mainieri, left, will try to deliver the Tigers’ sixth national championship, while Texas coach Augie Garrido is aiming for the Longhorns’ seventh.
OMAHA, Neb. — No offense to Fresno State’s fairy-tale run to last year’s national championship over Georgia. It certainly was a good story complete with a Cinderella ending.
But this year’s College World Series champion will come from the type of dream matchup you pray for and then hope comes true.
It’s time to rejoice because the baseball gods have delivered such a matchup for this edition of The Greatest Show on Dirt.
On Monday night (7 ET on ESPN/ESPN360.com), the LSU Tigers (54-16) and Texas Longhorns (49-14-1) will shake the foundation of tired Rosenblatt Stadium and begin a best-of-three series to determine the 2009 college baseball national champion.
In basketball, it would be like North Carolina and Kentucky playing for the national title. In football, it would be like a BCS title game between, well, LSU and Texas.
“I was hoping that Texas would win their side of it, and I was hoping we would win our side of it, because I thought it would be a great matchup,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “LSU and Texas, it’s made for television. I think there might be some tickets sold for these games.”
And there surely will be many people left on the outside looking in when these two college baseball behemoths take the field.
The two schools have met only twice in Omaha, with each winning once — Texas in a bracket final in 1989 (12-7), and LSU in a bracket opener in 2000 (13-5).
Texas enters Monday’s matchup as the No. 1 national seed in the tournament. The Longhorns have won six national titles, the most recent coming in 2005. LSU is the No. 3 national seed, and the Tigers have won five national titles — the most recent in 2000.
“Texas represents a program of excellence,” Mainieri said. “I look at [Texas coach] Augie Garrido, and he’s won more games than any coach in the history of college baseball; he’s got five national championships.
“I think that’s the kind of team you’re supposed to beat to win a national championship — one of the truly great programs in college baseball.”
If the Longhorns enjoy elite membership status by virtue of their national-best 33 CWS appearances, LSU has proven it belongs in the club, too, by virtue of its .635 winning percentage (33-19) here in Omaha, which ranks third all time.
The Tigers are enjoying their 15th trip to Omaha, and a sixth title would move them into a second-place tie with the Longhorns (behind USC’s 12).
And although Texas may be the No. 1 seed, it’s LSU that has been playing like the No. 1 team during the past month.
Just ask Garrido.
“LSU has played the best baseball in this tournament with their pitching and the combination of their consistent defense and their aggressiveness with the bats,” Garrido said. “So they’ve been the most consistent team in the tournament. Most people would probably pick them as the favorite based on the errors we’ve made, our three-inning imitation of the ‘Bad News Bears’ and some of the other things that have gone on.
“But if it’s about drama, we’ve got that.”
Where to begin? In NCAA tournament play, Texas is an impressive 8-1 — including 3-0 at the CWS — but getting there has been anything but pretty at times.
Consider the following:
• The Longhorns needed 25 innings to beat Boston College 3-2 in the second game of the Austin Regional.
• In the regional-clinching game the next day, Texas trailed Army by four runs in the ninth and needed a Preston Clark walk-off grand slam to win and advance to the super regionals.
• In the Austin Super Regional, the Longhorns were extended to a deciding game at home against TCU.
• Against Southern Miss in the CWS opener, the Longhorns came from behind in the eighth inning and needed a walk-off walk in the ninth to beat the Golden Eagles 7-6.
• Texas then spotted Arizona State a 6-0 lead before storming back with 10 unanswered runs for a 10-6 win on Tuesday.
• And in Friday night’s Bracket 2 championship against the Sun Devils, the Longhorns trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth until Cameron Rupp and Connor Rowe hit solo home runs to give Texas a 4-3 win to advance to play LSU. “Every game has been a battle for us, but we’ve made it through to the end — whether it was 25 innings, or the other day, when we were down by six,” Rupp said. “We’ll take it any way, and we’re going to come out and we’re going to compete every day just like we have been.
“For us to go out there and show that we have composure when we’re down and not panic all the time I think takes a little pressure off of us knowing that no matter how much we’re behind or how much we’re ahead, we’re going to play the same game.”
LSU hopes to play the same game it has been playing during the past month. Since May 21, the Tigers own a 13-game win streak and have outscored their opponents by a 110-41 margin. On paper, the Game 1 pitching matchup looks impressive. LSU will start Louis Coleman (14-2, 2.68 ERA, .218 opponents’ batting average), and Texas will counter with Chance Ruffin (10-2, 3.27 ERA, .229 opponents’ BA).
Coleman picked up a win in his CWS start (9-1 over Arkansas on June 15) and made a one-inning relief appearance in LSU’s Omaha opener against Virginia. Ruffin didn’t fare as well, as he lasted only two innings in Texas’ opener against Arizona State and was on the wrong end of a 6-0 score when he departed.
“For us, Louis Coleman is the guy we could count on all year,” Mainieri said. “What he has meant to our program is indescribable. Every big game that we’ve had, he’s grabbed the ball and he’s gone out there and competed. Our players love to play behind him because he throws so many strikes, he works fast, and the players are so inspired when they’re behind him.”
The game plan for LSU is simple: throw strikes, play defense and score runs. You can take that approach when you have the kind of talent Mainieri has at his disposal.
Don’t be fooled: Texas has plenty of talent, too. And that’s part of what makes this such an appetizing matchup between two of the biggest brand-name schools playing the game at the highest level.
“This is the series that everybody was looking for because of the matchup,” Coleman said. “They have great pitching, and so do we, and their great hitters match up well with ours. I think it’s even keel right across the board, and it’s going to be fun to see what happens.
“They’re a great team, but we’re still going to have to pitch. They could be the Yankees, but if you put it on the corners and find the right spot, it’s going to be tough to hit. The thing about Texas is they can hit mistakes. If I leave a ball over the middle, they’re going to be able to crush it.”
Rupp, Rowe and Michael Torres proved that with home runs in the last game against Arizona State. But as much as the bleacher bombs were a necessary and welcome part of Texas’ game, it was the unwelcome part (three errors versus ASU and 11 total in NCAA play) that has Garrido hoping the two days off between games will allow the Longhorns to refocus their approach.
He very much would like the top storyline to be more than LSU’s dominating run versus Texas’ resiliency.
“[We need to get] back to the fundamentals of the game,” Garrido said. “We need to settle down and get back inside our strike zone and need to get back to the little things that go along with being more consistent.
“They haven’t made any mistakes throughout this whole tournament. Their pitching has been nails, their defense has been great and their hitting has been the best in the tournament. So they’re well-balanced.”
Ultimately, the game will be decided on the field and not by anyone’s thoughts, wishes or opinions.
And baseball, seemingly more than any other sport, has a funny way of evening out the favorites and the underdogs.
“Baseball doesn’t really care what you like,” Garrido said. “You just go play. [Friday night] was very cruel to a very good [Arizona State] team, and that can happen to anybody at any time. But there are worse sports to participate in — gunfighting, gladiator sports, things like that where you only lose once.”
Fortunately for each club, one loss won’t mean the end of the season. It takes two wins in the championship series to crown a national champion. Since going to the best-of-three format in 2003, there have been three sweeps and three deciding Game 3s.
LSU has lost back-to-back games only once this season, on April 18 and 19 versus Tennessee. And the Tigers’ only other best-of-three series loss came against Illinois (1-2) back in early March.
Texas also has a pair of best-of-three series losses this season, at Kansas (0-3) and versus Kansas State (0-2-1).
As keyed up as everyone will be for Monday’s opener, the real key will be not to get too high or too low following the Game 1 outcome. Although, since going to the current format, the Game 1 winner has gone on to win the national title four of six times — including three sweeps. “I don’t really feel like we’re playing for a national championship yet because we can’t win the national championship on Monday,” Mainieri said. “It’s really kind of a dream come true that we’ve got to this point. When I say a dream, it’s not that I didn’t think we could, I very much expected us to be in this position when we started the year. Now it’s an opportunity for us, and we’ll see if we can seize it.”
It’s time for the dream to become a reality.