CBB: Defending champ LSU begins quest for CWS repeat
By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — Party’s over for the LSU Tigers.
It’s time for the defending College World Series champions to get back to baseball after they enjoyed an offseason highlighted by parades, a trip to the White House and countless high-fives from fans.
“I’ve been an honorary chairman and grand marshal of more parades than I can even count,” coach Paul Mainieri said with a laugh. “It’s been phenomenal and I hope we can do this again.”
It certainly won’t be easy as the Tigers’ quest for a rare repeat begins.
“If you sit around and think, ’Oh, can we repeat as national champions?’ I think that’s the wrong perspective,” Mainieri said. “What we’re going to do is just try to win another championship. I like our team and I think we’ve got a chance, but I also know that you not only have to be good, but you’ve got to be good at the right time.”
That’s what the Tigers were a year ago, and they’re loaded with talent again. But so are plenty of other teams whose sights are set on Omaha, including Texas, Virginia, Cal State Fullerton, Florida and Florida State.
“I think it’s wide open,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “It’s a sport now where teams across the country can really compete.”
It’s not quite baseball weather yet in many parts of the country, but the Division I season opens in full swing Friday. Teams have an added incentive on the road to Omaha this year, when the College World Series will be played for the last time at Rosenblatt Stadium — its home since 1950. The eight-team event moves next year to a new 24,000-seat stadium in downtown Omaha.
“Rosenblatt Stadium has meant so much to college baseball, but the most important thing for the College World Series is that it’ll still be in the city of Omaha,” Mainieri said. “What other sport does the one-word name of a city mean so much to so many people?”
LSU is looking to repeat as national champions for the second time in school history, joining the 1996-97 Tigers. Only four other times, including Southern California’s five straight from 1970-74, have teams won consecutive titles.
“There are a lot of schools going for it, so the laws of percentages tells you that it’s just so difficult for the same school to win in consecutive years,” Mainieri said. “At the same time, I’ve always been an optimist, so I say, ’Why not us?”’
Mainieri’s squad is led by 6-foot-7 right-hander Anthony Ranaudo, a possible top pick in the draft in June, one of the best closers in Matty Ott, and slugging first baseman Blake Dean.
Texas is the unanimous preseason No. 1, ranking at the top of every major poll entering the season after falling a win short of a seventh title.
“I think it’s based on where we finished last year,” coach Augie Garrido said, “and the fact we have a number of returning players from that team in key defensive positions, led by the pitching staff.”
Garrido, the winningest coach in Division I history, has perhaps the deepest stable of pitchers in the country with four hurlers — right-handers Taylor Jungmann, Brandon Workman, Cole Green and Chance Ruffin — with dominant stuff.
“I think the team has one of the most difficult things to get, and that’s a positive attitude,” Garrido said. “And they’re having fun.”
Virginia is coming off its first College World Series appearance and has its entire starting lineup back. The Cavaliers also have two top starting pitchers, lefty Danny Hultzen and right-hander Robert Morey, and closer Kevin Arico returning.
“I’ve never had them all come back like this,” O’Connor said. “That’s so rare to happen and it’s just because we had such a young team last year. Obviously, there’s comfort in that and you feel like you have experience from a position-player standpoint. It makes you feel good going into the start of the season having veteran players that have been in difficult spots during their careers.”
Cal State Fullerton has its entire weekend rotation with Daniel Renken, Noe Ramirez and Brett Pill, plus closer Nick Ramirez back from last year. The Titans also have one of the top defensive players in the country in shortstop Christian Colon.
Florida also has lots of pitching depth, the nation’s top-rated incoming recruiting class and outstanding sophomore first baseman Preston Tucker.
Florida State is hoping to deliver Mike Martin his first national title after posting the most wins among Division I teams since 2000. The Seminoles’ weekend starters — Sean Gilmartin, Brian Busch and Mike McGee — are all back, as well as speedy leadoff hitter Tyler Holt.
Other players who could play major roles in getting their teams to Omaha include: Georgia Tech right-hander Deck McGuire, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, UC Irvine lefty Daniel Bibona, Middle Tennessee State outfielder-pitcher Bryce Brentz, Arizona State left-hander Josh Spence and Louisville third baseman Phil Wunderlich.
“There’s so much parity in our sport because there are so many athletic administrations across the country that are really committed to baseball now,” O’Connor said. “That wasn’t the case just 10 or 15 years ago.”