By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
OMAHA, Neb. — It just doesn’t surprise Paul Mainieri anymore.
Not that Josh Smith belted a long home run out of TD Ameritrade Park and drove in two runs as LSU upended Oregon State, 3-1, on Friday afternoon.
Not that Zach Watson has gone 8-for-12 over the past three games at the College World Series to take over as the team’s leading hitter at .327.
Not even that Zack Hess, cultivating a near cult hero status here in Omaha, has saved each of LSU’s three wins while striking out eight of the 11 batters he’s faced.
“We have very inordinately poised freshmen,” the LSU coach said Friday. “I don’t think there’s any stage that’s too big for them. I think they’re all very level-headed kids that are bright. They love the game. They take on to coaching. And they believe in themselves and they go out there and perform and it’s a wonderful thing to see.
“Makes me feel pretty good about our future.”
Their collective contributions are a big reason why LSU is still standing in the present, too.
LSU will play winner-take-all rematch with the mighty Beavers some time Saturday with a trip to the College World Series Finals hanging in the balance.
Veteran rotation mates Alex Lange and Jared Poche’ twirled gems on Friday and Wednesday, respectively, to get LSU to this point, but the Tigers wouldn’t still be standing were it not for the heroics of those in-name-only rookies.
Watson and Smith each singled as LSU jumped out ahead with two runs in the second inning. Smith, schooled by LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs, ambushed a first-pitch fastball in the seventh inning to provide a needed insurance run.
“I finally didn’t hit the warning track,” Smith smiled to reporters as the team made its way to the locker room after the game.
That allowed Hess to turn off the lights with a dominant five-out save in relief of Lange. He struck out four of the five men he faced, blowing 96-97 mph heat past a host of All-Americans. The other out, a lazy fly ball to left, marked the first time someone put a Hess offering in play here in Omaha.
What allows these freshmen to perform on the biggest stage college baseball has to offer? According to their coach, it’s the fact that they’re just used to the spotlight at this point.
“If they were going to crack under the pressure, they would have done it long before now,” Mainieri said. “Coming out here we had confidence they would do well. They really have done well.”
It’s a good thing, too.
The excellence of LSU’s underclassmen has allowed the Tigers to survive less-than-stellar showings from the veterans who’d done so much just to get the team to this point.
Shortstop Kramer Robertson, the team’s unquestioned leader, is just 1-for-18 in Omaha. The top four hitters in the order have driven in just three runs between them in four College World Series games.
“We need Kramer, Cole (Freeman), Greg (Deichmann), we need all those veteran players to play, go out there and get it done tomorrow or our season’s going to come to an end,” Mainieri said bluntly when asked about the exploits of his freshmen.
That may be true, but for tonight, the kids are doing alright shouldering a lion’s share the load on their own.