By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — LSU and Florida could’ve saved everyone a whole lot of time if they’d just met in a given weekend in April and settled this.
Then again, what fun would that be?
Last month LSU and Florida shared the Southeastern Conference’s regular-season title. Starting Monday they’ll face off in the best-of-three College World Series Finals with a national championship and immortality hanging in the balance.
“Now 100 percent chance that an SEC team is going to win it,” lefty Jared Poche’ deadpanned. “So that’s good.”
“Just like an SEC weekend,” LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson added. “Just with more at stake.”
Annual foes for as long as Paul Mainieri and Kevin O’Sullivan have held their respective posts, the Tigers and Gators are quite familiar with one another.
The two coaches share a mutual respect that was on display at Sunday’s joint press conference. Mainieri professed to rooting for Florida to prevail in its semifinal against TCU to set up an All-SEC championship series.
“I just think it’s an awesome thing that these two SEC schools get to play for a national championship,” Mainieri said. “Probably the only person that’s happier than you and I, Kevin, is (SEC Commissioner) Greg Sankey. He’s anxious to get up here and get behind home plate so as not to show any favoritism.”
The two sides met in Gainesville in late March with Florida taking the first two games behind dominant outings from Alex Fadeo and Brady Singer before LSU rallied back from behind to salvage the series in game three.
O’Sullivan and Mainieri theorized that the shared familiarity would probably ease some of the anxiety that comes with being the last two teams standing, but aside from that, all involved felt the previous series would have no impact on what plays out over the next two-to-three days.
“I’d say I’m pretty indifferent about it,” Gator slugger JJ Schwartz said. “I feel like both teams have a lot of information on each other, so I feel like it weighs out in the long run … That series has no bearing on this series and there’s a lot more at stake for this one.”
While they wear the same uniforms, the LSU and Florida clubs that’ll take the field at TD Ameritrade Park hardly resemble the ones that played in Gainesville three months ago.
Consider that Zach Watson and Josh Smith were still wide-eyed freshmen playing in their second SEC weekend series. Mike Papierski had a batting average hoovering around the Mendoza line.
“We’re just a lot more mature,” second baseman Cole Freeman said of LSU’s growth from then to now. “We understand our game a lot more and understand what it takes. Our freshmen aren’t seeing some of the best pitchers in the nation for the first time.”
Caleb Gilbert was still serving as LSU’s interim closer in March and Zack Hess hadn’t yet been moved to the bullpen full-time yet.
Like LSU, the strength of Florida’s ball club remains its top-flight starting pitching. But the Gators have evolved plenty in their own right to reach this point.
The greatest metamorphosis has been at the back end of the bullpen.
Michael Byrne, while not a power arm like Hess, has meant everything and more to Florida’s relief corps. He’s tied for the national lead with 17 saves, provides enough versatility to start or close and owns a 1.74 ERA in 72.1 innings.
Lately it’s the emergence of flame-throwing freshman Tyler Dyson — sort of Florida’s answer to Hess, albeit in a less prominent role — that’s elevated the bullpen to another level.
“I think both teams are vastly improved from where we were a couple of months ago,” Mainieri summarized.
Let the team that’s vastly improved more win.