LSU players begin NCAA regional play with common goal of sending coach Paul Mainieri out in style

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainiei, who announced his retirement at the end of this season, begin their final postseason run together against Gonzaga in the NCAA regional in Eugene, Oregon at 9 p.m. Friday. Photo by Jonathan Mailhes

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri believes the long, winding look back at his 39-year distinguished career and the accompanying nostalgia has run its course.

A week after announcing his retirement from coaching upon the conclusion of this season, Mainieri has remained steadfast wanting to remain a footnote in what has amounted to college baseball’s version of the “Last Dance” where the Tigers are playing in a NCAA regional in Eugene, Oregon.

It’s Mainiei’s wish to shift the intensified spotlight to his players, They’ve heard his words, but don’t expect them to heed his message when third-seeded LSU (34-22) opens with second-seeded Gonzaga (33-17) at 9 p.m. at Oregon’s PK Park.

The game will be televised by ESPNU and broadcast locally by 98.1-FM.

“We’re going to go out there and play for him,” LSU freshman first baseman Tre’ Morgan said. “We’re going to play hard for him, win these games for him because we want to send him out on a high note. He tells us we should play this game for us, for our experiences because he’s had all of these experiences. Even though he’s had these experiences, we want him to leave on a high note.”

The LSU-Gonzaga game follows host and top-seed Oregon (37-14) versus fourth-seeded Central Connecticut State (28-13) which opens play at 4 p.m.

The two losers meet Saturday at 3 p.m., while the two winners square off at 9 p.m.

“I know this is it for me,” Mainieri said. “I’m excited about this weekend. I think we can win this thing. I’m confident. Not overly confident. I think we’re going to play a really good team against a really good pitcher.”

Mainieri ranks first among NCAA Division I baseball coaches with 1,501 career victories during his 39-year career that covers three different programs that include St. Thomas, Air Force and Notre Dame. He’s the seventh winningest coach of all-time but realizes that after coaching in 2,283 games – including 922 at LSU – his coaching career has reached the ninth inning but is hopeful of extending that into extra innings during his final foray into the postseason.

When he met with the media after practice Wednesday, Mainieri was content with his decision that was prompted by health issues related to two neck surgeries. He appeared somewhat rejuvenated and spoke with a touch of excitement of coaching in a regional where he expects to have three of his siblings and his best friend from high school in attendance.

“I want to win this thing,” he said. “We’re going to go after this thing with both barrels blazing. I’ve been a competitor my whole life. I’ve been competing since I was a young boy. After this season is over, I’m not going to have that competition in my life anymore.”

Mainieri admitted feeling emotional at the sight of his team’s reaction Monday to receiving an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament for the ninth consecutive time and 33rd overall. After an early exit from the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 4-1 loss to Georgia on May 25, the Tigers went into the selection show without a definitive feeling they would be included in the field of 64 and had to wait until the final bracket to see their name on the screen.

“It was very heartwarming to see the kids react that way,” Mainieri said of the team’s simultaneous eruption. “I love to see emotion move you to tears, move you to laughter and all of the emotions that come out. I stood in the background, and I had a tear in my eyes. It showed how much they care; how passionate they are about it. Sometimes when that passion comes out like that it rejuvenates you and it makes you not take things for granted. “

Mainieri also acknowledged dealing with a fleeting sense of finality after his team’s practice Tuesday at Alex Box Stadium. He said after leaving the field he stepped into the dugout and peered back over the playing field where LSU’s gigantic message board displayed an image of a smiling Mainieri with a message: Thank You!

He envisions being back on the same field next week preparing his team for a Super Regional which would take place in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It kind of overwhelmed me a bit,” he said. “I was wondering if that would be the last day that I walked off Alex Box Stadium’s field in an official capacity. I didn’t want to think negative. I feel like we’ll be back on the field getting ready for a Super Regional. It got to me a little bit.”

Gonzaga earned its highest seed in program history and was among the original 20 schools selected to possibly host a regional. The Bulldogs fell out of contention, though, after dropping their final West Coast Conference series to San Diego and wound up traveling in the school’s seventh regional appearance and first since 2018.

“They play with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy and they’re tough,” Mainieri said of Gonzaga, who as the regular season champions earned the NCAA’s automatic bid after the West Coast Conference didn’t conduct a postseason tournament because of COVID-19. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, especially when this kid’s on the mound.”

Gonzaga ace Alex Jacob (7-1, 2.82 ERA, 103 Ks, 76.2 IP) is the two-time West Coast Conference’s Pitcher of the Year and will open against LSU’s ace Landon Marceaux.

Jacob, a 6-foot-3 right-hander, threw the fifth career no-hitter in school history April 16 against Pepperdine. He struck out 12 and walked two for a pitching staff that’s tied nationally for second with eight shutouts.

“We’ve studied this pitcher so much,” Mainieri said. “He’s scares me. He’s got a really unorthodox way of pitching. He’s all arms and legs. He does have outstanding stuff and we have to have a really good approach against him.”

Marceaux (6-5, 2.26 ERA, 107 Ks, 91.2 IP) will face a Gonzaga offense hitting .280 with 33 homers and just 35 stolen bases.

Junior third baseman Brett Harris, the WCC’s Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team selection, leads the Bulldogs with a .358 average, six homers and 42 RBIs. Junior shortstop Ernie Yake (.321, 1 HR, 28 RBIs) is the only other starter hitting above .300 for a team that ranks sixth nationally in hit by pitches (96) and is eighth in fielding percentage (.982).

LSU counters with an offense that’s hit 80 homers and averages 6.75 runs per game.

Morgan leads the way with a .370 average with five homers, 37 RBIs and 14 stolen bases, followed by freshman right fielder Dylan Crews (.350, 13 HRs, 36 RBIs) and sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty (.303, 12 HRs, 53) and junior left fielder Gavin Dugas (.291, 16 HRs, 60 RBIs).

The Tigers also received a clean bill of health from Mainieri. He said Dugas has recovered from a collision with Drew Bianco during the Texas A&M series, center fielder Giovanni DiGiacomo is fully recovered from a hamstring pull, catcher Alex Milazzo was back at full health and that both relief pitchers Devin Fontenot and Garrett Edwards would be able to pitch this weekend.

“We know this is going to be his last year,” Crews said of Mainieri. “We’re going to go out and play for us and for him. We’re going to leave it on the field.”

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