There are moments in sports when a perfect storm of raw ability, execution, desire and pure circumstance converge to produce a moment in which a team transcends its normal limitations and becomes the stuff of legend. In that moment, a team flirts with the distinction between dominance and invincibility.
That moment for the LSU Tiger baseball team was the final inning of their super regional-clinching win over Oklahoma last Saturday in Baton Rouge. After winning Game 1 with a dominant pitching attack, LSU entered the top of the ninth of Game 2 with a firm 5-1 lead. Inside a raucous Alex Box Stadium that felt more like the site of a Mardi Gras festival than a baseball game, they proceeded to hammer out six runs on five hits, batting around in the process. Watching it, you just had the feeling LSU not only would not lose, but could not lose.
The poor Sooners were simply outmatched. They sent out one reliever after another in a vain attempt to stem the tide. When the onslaught finally subsided, LSU had won 11-1 and was heading to its first College World Series since 2009.
Any doubts about the favorite to win the national championship were extinguished. Heading into the College World Series, which LSU will open against UCLA Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, the only question remaining is simple: Can anybody beat the Tigers?
The fact that LSU is the tournament's No. 4 seed is a bit misleading. Much more significant than the selection committee's somewhat arbitrary ordering of the national seeds is the fact that LSU sits at No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and is considered by the majority of college baseball experts to be the favorite to carry the tournament, a sentiment solidified with the Tigers' dismantling of Oklahoma.
Bolstering the theory is the fact that several of the other major contenders have either struggled in their journey to Omaha or have failed to make it entirely. Gone is No. 2 seed Vanderbilt, who flopped against Louisville in the Nashville Super Regional. North Carolina, the tournament's top-overall seed, has already lost twice in the first two rounds, and needed a miraculous extra-innings win over Florida Atlantic just to make it out of the regionals. No. 3 Oregon State has lost once. Seeds five through eight are watching from home.
LSU, on the other hand, has largely been a model of consistency. It entered the field after completing a 34-4 campaign that saw it win 23 SEC games and capture the conference title. Despite some early hiccups, the Tigers moved through their regional a perfect 3-0, taking down Jackson State, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Lafayette in order before sweeping the Sooners. It's been a balanced attack from LSU, which has been dominant both offensively and defensively: Through five tournament games, the team is batting .302, has outscored opponents 37-14 and holds a 1.60 ERA.
To make this simple, no team in the CWS has been as consistently dominant as the Tigers.
How good are they?
To understand the 2013 team, we first have to understand the history of LSU. One of the most storied programs in the sport, the Tigers have played in 10 super regionals since 1999 and have reached Omaha a total of 16 times. They've gone on to win the national championship in six of those trips, the most recent of which came in 2009 under current head coach Paul Mainieri. They hold the all-time highest tournament winning percentage and have the most victories and appearances among SEC schools.
That's why it was so surprising when, following the '09 title run, the program hit a three-year CWS drought. Since 1982, no four-year senior to play baseball at LSU has missed going to Omaha at least once during their career. After their shocking loss to Stony Brook in the 2012 super regionals, it looked as though the class of 2013 could be the first to do so.
It is that threat that has been a major motivation for this year's seniors, a class composed of position players Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes along with closer Chris Cotton.
Aside from the invaluable experience and senior leadership that Katz and Rhymes bring to the table, the pair propel a dangerous LSU offense with two very big bats. Katz is a power-hitting first baseman who knocked in an SEC-best 68 RBI, held a share of the conference home run lead with 15 and boasts a .366 average. Rhymes, a solid-hitting outfielder who went to Detroit in the 15th round, is third on the team with 46 RBI and is slugging .461. His senior year has been a bit of a step backward, with his batting average falling roughly 100 points since last year. That average still comes in at .341, though, a testament to his ridiculous junior campaign in which he flirted with .500 until late into the season.
The surprising pace-setter of the offense, however, is new-comer Alex Bregman, Collegiate Baseball's Freshman of the Year. Bregman, who leads the Tigers in extra-base hits, possesses a rare blend of athleticism and technique, and holds an uncanny maturity for such a young player. He is the ultimate example of the all-around athlete, hitting .380 at the plate and stealing 16 bags. His defense is spotty at times (16 errors on the season), but overall he is a solid fielder at the shortstop position.
The Tigers have been as dominant on the mound as they have from the plate. They rank second in the conference with a team ERA of 2.41, have held opponents to .217 at the dish and have struck out an impressive 492 total batters. They boast a stellar three-man rotation -- headlined by ace Aaron Nola -- and come out of the pen at you with a number of quality arms, the most notable of which is closer Cotton, who is third in the SEC with 16 saves and holds a 45:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Nola will start this Saturday's matchup against UCLA. The 6'11, 183-pound sophomore is a righty with an upper-80s, low 90s-fastball who fills up the zone and is the type of dominating force that can take over a game at any point. That's exactly what he did against Oklahoma in Game 1, when he gave up just two hits during a shutout of the Sooners that included six strikeouts and no walks. On the season, Nola is a perfect 12-0 with a 1.68 ERA and has fanned a conference-best 117 batters.
Ryan Eades and Cody Glenn round out the top three pitchers. Eades, a three-pitch guy with a 92-94 fastball and solid curve, has struggled with duration so far in the tournament, totaling just 6⅓ innings in his two outings. He'll need to find a way to go deeper into games if LSU hopes to avoid wearing out its bullpen. Another major factor is the return of Glenn, who was suspended for the regional round and held out for the supers. He'll be back in the rotation, but will have to shake off the rust of a long layoff. If he pitches in the Tigers' second CWS game, which will be next Tuesday, it will have been 27 days since his last start.
Signs of mortality
As impressive as LSU has been, they've not been completely without faults. They hit a rough patch in their first game of the regionals against Jackson State when an uncharacteristically wild Eades allowed two runs on five free passes and four hits before being yanked in the third inning. The offense did its job by putting up 11 runs in support, but it then took four relievers to work through the final two innings, giving up five runs in the process and turning a rout into an uncomfortably close 11-7 win.
It was even more surprising when Nola and an error-prone defense allowed Sam Houston State to jump out to a 5-1 lead in the first inning the following game. Nola wasn't as sharp as we've become accustomed to, and the usually sure-handed defense booted the ball around the infield.
This is baseball, after all. That moment of near-invincibility against Oklahoma was awe-inspiring, but ultimately temporary. Even with the very best defensive clubs, errors will happen. Aces will have off days. Freak-show freshman sluggers will strike out.
But what is so damn impressive about the Tigers is that, even when things do go wrong, they find a way to buckle down and overcome.
After allowing those five first-inning runs against Sam Houston, Nola composed himself and gritted out six more innings, during which he allowed no runs, just four hits and struck out six. The defense shored up and didn't allow another unearned run for the rest of the way. And the offense slowly climbed back into the game, finally exploding for a four-spot in the eighth to recapture the lead. Final score: 8-5.
The Tigers will most likely have more of those transcendent, legendary moments in Omaha. They'll also probably have some painfully mortal moments. The challenge the other seven teams face is this: Even when the Tigers are not at their best, can LSU be beat?