2008: The Resurgence of LSU Baseball
10-Year Anniversary of the 2008 Baseball Team
“2008 will be the last time that people will take LSU baseball lightly.”
That’s how head coach Paul Mainieri began the first team meeting of the year on August 21, 2007.
After coming off of a disappointing 29-26-1 season where the Tigers missed the SEC Tournament by a thread, LSU baseball had reloaded, and the players began to buy in to Mainieri in his second season at the helm.
The Tigers brought back Blake Dean, Sean Ochinko, Jared Mitchell and Ryan Schimpf as sophomores. All of them saw extended playing time as freshmen, taking up four of the top five batting order spots. Mainieri used his inaugural year as head coach to discover which players truly valued being a Tiger. Those were the guys he wanted in his program.
Dean, Ochinko, Mitchell and Schimpf had their struggles when they were freshmen, but when they reported to that team meeting at the beginning of their sophomore seasons they were vastly better because of the struggles they encountered one year prior.
Mainieri also had the top recruiting class in the country for the 2008 season.
Leon Landry was a three-sport athlete from Baker High School, just outside of Baton Rouge. He played the big-three, football, basketball and of course, baseball. In football, Landry was a four-year letter winner and in basketball, he was named the team captain of the team his senior season. He was playing on a completely different level on the baseball diamond, though. Landry was a top prospect in the Southeast region. After being a three-time first-team all-district player as a pitcher and infielder, LSU and coach Mainieri came calling. Landry committed to his hometown Tigers.
DJ LeMahieu was another multi-sport athlete who dabbled in basketball, but he found his calling in the infield of a baseball field. Unlike Landry, LeMahieu was not from the backyard of LSU. Instead, LSU had to go up to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to pluck him. The lanky infielder was not hard to find, though, as he was just about as decorated as one could be. Among many other honors, LeMahieu received All-America honors from Louisville Slugger and Rawlings, and he was the two-time winner of Gatorade player of the year in Michigan. Ultimately, LeMahieu wanted to come play for coach Mainieri on the Bayou.
Micah Gibbs was a catcher out of Pflugerville, Texas, who similarly to LeMahieu, was a Rawlings High School All-American. He was a .408 hitter in high school with 14 home runs. Gibbs, LeMahieu, Landry and the rest of LSU’s top-rated recruiting class were ready to begin work for the final season at the old Alex Box Stadium.
“With any class, regardless of ranking, the key is to get the players to perform well once they join our program. We still have a lot of work to do as we mold these players and help them reach the necessary level of consistency. It sure is exciting, though, to have players of this caliber on the field,” Mainieri said.
That August 21 meeting gave the freshmen a rude awakening to not just what college baseball was all about, but what LSU baseball was in particular. Mainieri knew what he had to do to help them reach the level they needed to be at and he also knew the Tigers had been underachieving.
After the 2001 season, Skip Bertman (870-330-3) retired from coaching. After enjoying a couple of successful seasons following Bertman’s retirement, LSU baseball slipped a little bit. The Tigers had not been to Omaha since 2004 and in Mainieri’s first year in 2007, the team didn’t make the NCAA tournament. To find the last time that LSU had not been to the College World Series for four straight seasons, you would have to travel back to the 1982-85 seasons.
LSU baseball did not feel like LSU baseball. Mainieri was out to change that, and it started with culture. It started with the freshmen class. The LSU coaching staff forced them to believe that their class would be the one that when people looked back, they would point to them as the class that got LSU Baseball back on the map.
“I hope this ranking further energizes our fan base and demonstrates that LSU’s return as one of the elite in college baseball is imminent,” Mainieri said in 2007 of the class.
If that class was going to be the one that turned the program around, one might look at that year’s senior class as a narrative as to how the program had been underachieving. Since 1986, every senior class at LSU has made it to Omaha for the College World Series. Going into the 2008 season, though, that streak was up in the air. Making it to Omaha for that class was in the back of everybody’s mind.
At that point, all the seniors on the team were guys that truly bled Purple and Gold. They would all do anything to help the team make it to Omaha. After some attrition following Mainieri’s first season righting the ship, Michael Hollander and Jared Bradford were the only four-year veterans left on the team.
Younger players such as Gibbs took notice that most of the seniors were program guys. They wanted to make it to Omaha for them not because of the streak, but because of the players and teammates that they were.
This will be the last year any opponent doesn’t take us seriously. That fall the Tigers went to work with that in mind.
“In the fall in particular we worked harder than any team in America,” said sophomore Schimpf. “It was a culture we were trying to build for a long time.”
Heading into the final year at the old Alex Box Stadium, the 2008 season was about building a renewed LSU Baseball culture that would extend into the new stadium for a long time to come.
The House that Skip Bertman Built
Tradition runs deeps in the LSU baseball program. Every young boy who picks up a bat, a ball and a glove in the state of Louisiana dreams of wearing those hallowed three letters across their chest.
That was no different for the 22 Louisiana boys on the 2008 squad. Alex Box Stadium was a castle to these guys. They dreamed of being treated like royalty and walking on the same grounds as the players that they grew up idolizing—Ben McDonald, Lyle Mouton, Todd Walker, Kurt Ainsworth, Warren Morris, Eddy Furniss, Brett Laxton, Brandon Larson, Brad Cresse and Wally Pontiff.
The list could go on forever and ever, but that’s due to one important piece: Skip Bertman.
Alex Box Stadium was the house that Skip Bertman built, and the 2008 Tigers knew they had to send out the old park by putting LSU baseball back on the map again and bringing the Tigers back to Rosenblatt Stadium.
Bertman was appointed to the helm of the LSU baseball program in the spring of 1983, and he immediately pumped new life into the program and put LSU on the steps to becoming a national powerhouse.
The Tigers won their first SEC championship in 11 seasons in 1986 and made the school’s first College World Series appearance. Five seasons later, in 1991, LSU claimed its first national title in school history. The 1991 Tigers had made it to the College World Series for the third consecutive season and was in Omaha for the fifth time in six years.
The tradition continued as the Tigers added multiple SEC titles and took home the national title once more in 1993.
In 1996, Warren Morris hit the home run heard around the world to secure LSU’s third national title, and the Tigers repeated the feat in 1997. The Tigers secured their fifth national championship in 2000, and LSU baseball had been on the map for more than a decade under Bertman.
The Box became sacred grounds because of the fact that Bertman had mastered the art of winning crucial games. For hours before games, fans would line up and little kids would be in line to get autographs from their favorite players.
Michael Hollander was one of those kids in line waiting for his favorite players. Hollander grew up idolizing the Tigers and would go to all of the games with his dad, who had season tickets in the outfield.
He always came to The Box accompanied with a bag of Skittles. They were the young Hollander’s favorite, but the close quarters would often cause him to drop them all over the bleachers, giving him the nickname “Skittles” to the fans that sat in the section.
As he aged, baseball took up more and more of his time, and he and his father would barely be able to attend games because he was too busy playing himself. The standout at Jesuit High School in New Orleans was trying to be one of those guys that he grew up watching in the bleachers with his dad.
In the 2008 season, his father, Mike, had returned to his bleacher seats for the first time in years, and everyone wanted to know where Skittles was. It had been years since they had seen the young kid.
Mike pointed out to third base. “That’s my son out there,” he said.
Michael Hollander’s dream came true in 2005, and in 2008, he was the only four-year senior on the team.
“Playing on that same field as all of those guys that you grew up watching like Blair Barbier and Wally Pontiff, not just at the same university but on the same dirt is indescribable to me,” Hollander said. “It was a dream come true to go from sitting in the bleachers to being on the field playing for the Tigers.”
As a kid on the playground, sophomore Schimpf would run the bases and take ground balls, pretending he was Brandon Larson, his favorite LSU baseball player of all-time. The shortstop wore the No. 16 in his one season with the Tigers, the 1997 season, but his impact on the young Schimpf was the reason he wore the No. 16. It is all about the glory of wearing that Purple and Gold.
“We were playing to go to Omaha, but we were also playing for all of the players who came before us that had laid the ground for us,” Nick Pontiff explained.
These 22 Louisiana kids were waiting for their time, and they finally had become those players who had to walk through droves of fans to get to the batting cages before games and to their cars after games.
They knew their time was limited in the Old Box. A nicer, state-of-the-art stadium was on its way to open the ’09 season, but they had to teach the 13 other members of the team the LSU baseball way before getting to that new locker room.
It was only proper for the players who came before them, the players who had to rake their own field when they wanted to take ground balls and cut the grass when they wanted extra batting practice, before there was a grounds crew and before there was a legacy in the interlocked L-S-U.
That didn’t happen overnight. It was from years of Bertman infiltrating the LSU program with hard work, pride and dedication to lay the foundation of the program, and the 2008 team was going to fill the cracks that had been in the foundation of the program under the leadership and guidance of Mainieri.
“We had a responsibility to pay them back—the fans, Skip and all of those who came before us to play at LSU,” Pontiff added. “We had to give the Old Box one final sendoff to Omaha.”
One Pitch Away
After the first 11 games of 2008, LSU sat at 10-1.
The Tigers then lost back to back games against Stetson and Southeastern heading into their first SEC series against Tennessee.
Tennessee swept the series.
“We started out the season and I knew we had a much better team, but it was kind of three steps forward, one step back,” Mainieri said.
Over the course of the next few weeks, LSU continued to have peaks and valleys. A lot of the valleys came in SEC play.
The Tigers won their second SEC series 2-1 against Arkansas after getting swept by the Volunteers. After winning thanks to a walk-off home run from Matt Gaudet in the 11th in Game 1, LSU surged to a 9-1 lead in Game 2. Arkansas charged back though and ended up winning the contest 14-13 in 10 innings. LSU took the rubber match to win the series.
The following weekend, the Tigers dropped a series to No. 24 Florida in Gainesville. In the first game of the weekend set, LSU led 4-2 going into the bottom half of the seventh. The Gators exploded for six runs that inning which propelled them to a win. They took Game 2 from the Tigers 7-1, but LSU was able to salvage Game 3 on Sunday with a 6-3 victory.
It was a theme. LSU would get the lead early on, but the Tigers never seemed able to hold onto it. Sometime late in games when they were in a position to potentially win, they couldn’t get the clutch hit to go ahead.
When LSU played Alabama, it was the latter that harmed them. The Tigers ended up taking two-of-three from the Crimson Tide. In Game 2 of the series and a Saturday double-header, LSU and Alabama were tied at 5-5 after seven innings. The Tigers, playing at home, had four innings to scratch across a run, but they were unable to. Alabama scored on a squeeze play in the top of the 11th to give them a victory. LSU took the series on Sunday with a 9-7 victory in which the Tigers scored five unanswered runs to take the lead and ultimately win.
It was certainly a step in the right direction, but as the season was going, LSU would fall to No. 18 Ole Miss in two of the three games in Oxford. After getting only two runs combined in the first two games, LSU posted an 8-2 victory in the series finale.
LSU was set to play No. 13 Georgia the next weekend. The Bulldogs were playing some of the best baseball in the country as they had won eight consecutive SEC games. In Game 1, LSU trailed going into the bottom of the ninth. The Tigers loaded the bases, but just couldn’t get a hit. They left 11 guys on throughout the course of Game 1.
“That’s the difference between winning and losing,” Mainieri said after the loss. “We just didn’t get the hits when we had the opportunities.”
LSU was right there in Game 2. The game was tied at 8-8 in the ninth. It was Georgia, though, who prevailed and got a runner home as they beat LSU 9-8.
2008 was supposed to be the year that brought LSU brought back to prominence. The whole team believed that going into the season, but after a 12-inning 10-10 tie in the series finale, which was called due to SEC travel regulations, nothing had come to fruition.
In Coach Mainieri’s eyes, LSU had just battled with one of the top teams in the SEC for three games. Outside of the program there were murmurs about the weekend series with the Bulldogs being a failure, the Tigers’ season going in the drain. He thought that the young team was close to turning a page, but they just needed a little more.
“We were irate,” pitcher Louis Coleman said. “We knew we should have taken that series and had the ability to.”
The Tigers were about to get a lot more.
LSU at Tulane – April 22, 2008
Throughout the first 40 games of the season, Mainieri told his players that they were real close to being the real deal. They were one pitch, one hit, one great play away. All they had to do was keep believing that something would shift. Then April 22nd happened.
“I’ll never forget it as long as live,” Mainieri recalled.
Despite being 23-16-1 (6-11-1 in the SEC), the team believed that they were right there. The baseball gods weren’t helping the Tigers out. Half of LSU’s 16 losses up to that point had been had been by one run.
“Things just weren’t going our way,” Nick Pontiff said.
On April 22, the Tigers had a choice to make. They could pack it in for the season after struggling through 40 games with nothing going their way, or they could choose to keep fighting for the remaining 12 games and see what would happen. They were going to fight.
The Tigers knew that at some point the paradigm would shift.
As the visiting team on that Tuesday evening, LSU trailed Tulane 4-3 heading into the top of the eighth. The team didn’t waver in confidence.
Dean, a player who became known in 2008 for his ultra-clutch hitting, led off the top of the eighth with a double. That was followed by a Derek Helenihi single. The Tigers were cooking with runners on the corners, nobody out.
The next batter, Gibbs grounded out, though, and Dean wasn’t able to score from third. Then Matt Clark struck out. It felt like the air was sucked out of the visiting dugout at Turchin Stadium.
What happened in the next at-bat would set the tone for the rest of the season.
The batter was the freshman shortstop, LeMahieu.
On the first pitch he saw, LeMahieu smashed a ball into the gap. Dean and Helenhini scored to give the Tigers a one-run lead. Shane Ardoin pitched a scoreless eighth, and Paul Bertuccini shut the door in the ninth. The Tigers tacked on some insurance runs and won 8-4.
“That night I could just feel that something was different. I told them ‘Tonight, we’re going a roll and that was Game 1,'” said Mainieri.
Headed out of the night of April 22 no one knew the kind of roll that was to come. At this point, the Tigers had three conference series left and they sat in 11th place out of 12 in the SEC. Only the top eight teams in the conference would get to go to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament.
“We just wanted to beat Tulane that night and we found a way to win a really tough ball game with clutch hits and clutch pitching at the end,” Mainieri explained.
The next night, the Tigers played McNeese State and won 6-0. After three scoreless innings, LSU got on the board in the bottom of the fourth with a two-run double from Gibbs, and from there it wasn’t much of a contest.
The Tigers had now won back-to-back games and had a weekend series date with South Carolina.
The LSU baseball that you think of today isn’t what LSU baseball was a decade ago. Sure, they had the history of the five national championships under Bertman, but the recent history for LSU baseball was not what people had come to expect. On bad teams nobody leads, on good teams the coaches lead, and on great teams, the players lead.
In the spring of 2008, the players started to take the lead. Once they started winning, the team chemistry started building off the field. As they started building camaraderie off the field, they started winning more games. It was a cycle that propelled LSU into being an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.
The opening act was finished and the headliner had some fireworks to follow.
Magic Ensues in Championship Gold
The pieces of the puzzle were finally starting to come together for the Tigers after their wins at Tulane and against McNeese State, but one thing was missing—the final identity of the team.
The hard work and brotherhood was there, but Nick Pontiff knew there was just something missing.
Prior to the weekend series slated against South Carolina, Pontiff was talking with Buzzy Haydel about the championship videos that used to be shown to the old LSU teams. When he was younger, he would always hear about these videos of the national championship teams from his brother, Wally.
The duo approached Bradford and Hollander about them, and they marched into director of operations Will Davis‘ office.
“Will, we know you know where these videos are,” Hollander pled. “We have to show them to the team.”
“I’ll find them,” Davis replied.
One day later, Hollander and Bradford called a team meeting before the first pitch of the first game between LSU and South Carolina.
The duo popped in the 1996 national championship team video, and the team sat in silence and in awe watching that team secure the title and all of the different ways it was able to accomplish the feat.
Finally, a voice chimed in, “Let’s go make a moment. It’s time for us to make a moment.”
That was the mantra for the 1996 team and quickly became the mantra for the 2008 team.
“We needed an identity, and this wasn’t gimmicky,” Pontiff stated. “It wasn’t like we were trying to create something out of nothing. This wasn’t something we had been thinking of. It was purely organic. We needed something to rally around, and who else is better to give us an identity than the 1996 LSU baseball team?”
It was time to play ball and take Game 1 from South Carolina in what was expected to be a weather-impacted weekend in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers found themselves in an early 2-0 hole, but in the bottom of the second, Landry hit a RBI single up the middle, and Jared Mitchell followed with a two-run single. The inning was capped off by a two-run shot to left field by Hollander, and LSU had the 5-2 lead.
Matt Clark launched a two-run homer to right field in the third, and the Tigers added three runs in the sixth inning. Before anyone could blink, LSU had broken the game open behind Blake Martin’s 8.1 sensational innings and scored 11 unanswered runs after facing the early deficit and snatched the opening game from the Gamecocks.
That night, Mainieri checked the forecast and knew Sunday was going to be a rainout, and he began to think.
The second-year head coach explained that every Sunday when the Tigers wore gold, it seemed that they would figure out a way to eke out a win. Why not treat Saturday’s Game 2 like a Sunday since there was a potential chance of a rainout and wear the gold jerseys, the same gold jerseys that were prevalent in the 1996 video that the team had watched earlier?
Saturday was a dreary afternoon filled with a thick mist, and the Tigers quickly fell behind the Gamecocks, 7-0, after five innings.
It was time for moments to happen.
The LSU offense began to bubble and pecked at the Gamecock lead and in the bottom of the eighth, Nick Pontiff was called in to pinch hit. With one out and DJ LeMahieu on second after a leadoff walk and a wild pitch, Pontiff smoked a 1-0 ball over the left field wall to tie the game.
He made his moment.
The Tigers forced the game into extras and a fielding error brought home Chris McGhee, securing the LSU win and stunning South Carolina.
LSU had taken the series, won four straight games, and was awaiting a rainout that never happened.
The forecast cleared. Sunday’s series finale was going to be played as originally scheduled, but the Tigers had already worn their Sunday golds.
After watching the 1996 video, players began to ask coach if they could continue to wear the golds.
“Absolutely. There has got to be power in those gold jerseys,” he replied. “Let’s wear them every day.”
LSU went on to sweep the No. 12 team in the nation with a 6-3 win, marking the first SEC home sweep in five seasons.
After a five-run fifth in the mid-week game against UL-Lafayette gave enough to capture the 5-3 win, the Tigers were hot heading into Lexington for a series against No. 18 Kentucky.
Rain postponed the Friday contest, and LSU was playing a doubleheader in Cliff Hagan Stadium on Saturday.
A pitcher’s duel was on deck in the first contest. Ryan Verdugo and UK’s starter Chris Rusin each worked eight innings and the game was tied, 1-1. The score held through nine innings, and extra innings were in the cards for the Tigers.
In the top of the 10th inning, Hollander ripped a RBI double to break the tie, and Helenihi singled to give LSU a two-run advantage, 3-1.
Jared Bradford blanked the Wildcats in the bottom of the 10th to take home the seventh-straight win.
LSU went on to pound a 12-5 victory out and sweep the doubleheader in the nightcap to make it eight straight wins.
The Tigers were on the bus for the third game and were focused, but something was missing for Fontana, Calif., native Matt Clark—the 1996 video.
“Where’s the 1996 team at?” the junior college transfer slugger asked.
They found the video and played it for the big bopper.
“This guy has bought in,” Buzzy Haydel thought to himself that day. “A guy from California from nowhere near LSU was so invested, so locked into these videos every time we would show them. He wanted to win for the fans, for the LSU culture.”
Clark was locked in.
LSU opened the game with the lead, but eventually found its way into an 8-7 hole. In the top of the ninth inning, and with two outs on the board, right fielder Helenihi had worked a critical walk, putting the Tigers’ slugger in the batter’s box.
“It’s fun to be on deck and watch guys do well in front of you,” Clark explained. “It pushes everyone to be better. If someone did something better, I thought, ‘I can outdo him.'”
He wanted to outdo Helenihi and launched a two-run moonshot, his 17th home run of the year, to lift LSU to the 9-8 victory and complete the series sweep to put the Tigers atop the SEC West.
“It was no longer about winning or losing for Coach, or for the fans, or for me to have a 4-for-4 day,” Pontiff stated. “We were going to do whatever it took to win so that the guy beside each of us could win, too, and the ownership started taking over the team across the locker room.”
Refuse to Lose
The No. 3 hung on the outfield wall at The Box after the weekend at Kentucky. There were only three home games left for the Tigers at the Old Box as LSU was amid a nine-game win streak.
“We were going to keep winning,” Ochinko said. “No matter what the situation was, if we were down late in the game or started off and things went rough, we knew that we were going to find a way to win and refused to lose.”
In the final SEC series at The Box, LSU took down Mississippi State on a packed Friday night in early May, 15-6. The Tigers had won 10-straight games for the first time since 2001, and Mississippi State legend Ron Polk removed the No. 3 from the wall.
Two games left at The Box.
The next day, LSU won behind an outstanding pitching effort by Martin, Nolan Cain and Austin Ross; the offense launched four home runs to continue providing glimpses of the “Gorilla Ball” era of the 1990s, and the Tigers took Game 2, 16-4.
Mainieri went to the wall and place the No. 1 there. Just one game remained in the Old Box. How were the Tigers going to send it out?
“Tomorrow will be a very emotional day out here, and we have to keep our emotions in check,” Mainieri said after the game. “We need to go out there, play well and get the job done.”
On Sunday, LSU had the largest paid attendance in Old Alex Box history, and it completed the sweep against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, 9-6, in the final regular season contest at the historic ballpark.
After the game, more than 100 formers LSU players celebrated with the current players, coaches, fans and Bertman, commemorating 70 years in “The Box.”
The stadium was roaring, and no one in that park wanted the home season to end there. LSU had locked up the magic of the Old Box in a ball to be released at the open of the New Box in ceremonial fashion.
The Tigers took a victory lap, but was it going to be the last one?
LSU began its final regular season week with the Wally Pontiff Jr. Game , a 15-inning win over UNO. The Tigers walked off with a Ochinko single into left field, and Coleman earned the win after firing two shutout innings.
“I think when I really started realizing that the win streak was a real thing was going into that last week at Auburn,” Mitchell said. “If we would’ve swept Auburn we would have a chance to win the conference title. That was when it was like we are still winning, what’s going on? I think that’s when it clicked with me that it was kind of different.”
The Tigers went up to Auburn and finished the regular season with their fourth-straight conference series sweep.
“Check the record books,” Mainieri said. “That has never been done before in all the great history of LSU baseball. Never had we swept four conference series in a row, and we did it at the end of the year when all of those games mattered. We went from being 11th in the SEC to win the Western Division outright and become the second-best team in the conference. Plus, we won all of our midweek games.”
It was SEC Tournament time.
The No. 8 LSU Tigers were facing the No. 19 South Carolina team to open the tournament and found themselves in a 4-0 hole in the bottom of the ninth.
Dean took a walk and so did Gibbs to open the bottom half of the frame. With one out, Clark unloaded a three-run blast to close the game to 4-3.
LeMahieu stood on first after a walk and with two outs Ryan Schimpf doubled inside of the left field foul line to drive in the tying run.
LSU senior Jared Bradford entered the game to pitch the top of the 10th inning and blanked the Gamecocks.
With one out and the game knotted at four runs, Dean blasted Alex Farotto’s 2-0 pitch over the right-center field wall as LSU took the win in dramatic fashion and increase the win streak at 17.
“That was probably one of the best comebacks I have ever witnessed as a coach,” Mainieri emphasized.
The Tigers rolled through Vanderbilt and Alabama in their Championship Gold uniforms and then secured an 8-2 win against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament Championship.
It was magical. LSU had secured its 20th-straight game and they were going back home to The Box for an NCAA Regional.
“It was like the Old Box refused to go out,” Clark remembered. “It didn’t want to leave.”
LSU was on autopilot in the Baton Rouge Regional. LSU cruised through a game against Texas Southern and then defeated Southern Miss two times by at least seven runs in each contest to secure a Super Regional at home in Baton Rouge.
After securing the 23rd-straight win, the longest win streak in SEC history, Mainieri thought back to what he had said to his team on August 21, 2007, in the first team meeting of the year. Now was the chance to secure those words.
2008 will be the last time anybody ever takes LSU baseball lightly.
One More Dogpile in the Old Box
The practices leading up to the NCAA Super Regional were hot. It was unbearably humid as the Tigers were getting set to take on UC Irvine, but there were at least two more games at The Box.
“We had such an affinity for the old stadium that there was no way that we were going to allow it to be closed without a victory and going to Omaha,” Pontiff explained.
These players were ready. None of them had been in this position before, but they were going to make it happen.
It was muggy, and the Tigers knew they had not seen an opponent like the Anteaters before. They were a small, scrappy West Coast style baseball team known for its bunts and small ball play going up against a team who loved the long ball and showing glimpses of the 1990s corked bat era.
Fans had been installed in the dugouts. Players were getting heat exhaustion. It was a typical June in Louisiana, but the emotions were running high between both teams.
It was time to bring the Old Box out in style with one twist—the NCAA had told LSU that the Tigers were wearing white.
For the first time in 21 games, LSU was forced to wear white.
“Some team tried to play games with us earlier in the season and say we couldn’t wear them, but we were like ‘OK whatever, we are wearing them no matter what happens’,” Matt Clark said. “There’s nothing that you can do to stop us … until now.”
Mainieri had requested gold undershirts be ordered for the team and demanded that the crowd was filled with gold for the first game of the series.
First pitch was at 5 p.m., and the Old Box was PACKED with 7,460 screaming fans in gold in the 92-degree heat.
Ryan Verdugo got the starting nod on the mound for the Tigers. After two quick walks, a bunt and a single up the middle in the top of the first, UC Irvine jumped out to the 2-0 lead.
The Tigers were used to being down though. In 17 of its 23 straight wins, LSU had to come from behind to secure the win. They were going to be just fine.
In the bottom of the sixth, LSU trailed 6-1, but a rally was brewing. The crowd could feel it.
With two outs in an already walk-plagued game, the Anteaters walked the bases loaded, and Landry singled to second base to bring in Gibbs.
LeMahieu was standing on second, and UC Irvine tried to catch LSU napping on the base paths. A hidden ball trick was in the cards for the Anteaters, and though LeMahieu had returned to the bag, the second base umpire called LeMahieu out and sent the Box into a frenzy.
“Earlier in the season, we weren’t finishing games, we were losing by one run, we were losing by fluke plays. Things just weren’t going our way, but this wasn’t supposed to happen. Not now,” Pontiff said.
That hidden ball trick sucked the momentum out of the first base dugout and put it all in UC Irvine’s possession, and the Anteaters snapped the Tigers’ 23-game win streak with an 11-5 win.
“You have got to win tomorrow or this stadium is being closed, our season is over and we are not going to Omaha,” Mainieri told the team in right field postgame. “There is no time to feel sorry for yourself. There’s two options. We wither win or we put the bats away and close out the stadium. Let’s go out there and win.”
Each of the players nodded in agreement. They were on the same page—they were going to go out there and win, win for each other.
That streak didn’t mean anything to the team. It was cool, but they were going to win that next game for each other, for the fans, for the players that came before then and for The Box.
Back to square one.
The Anteaters had started their guy—Daniel Bibona, and he showed up to the packed stadium that day. His team had taken a comfortable 7-2 lead into the top of the eighth inning.
The Tiger dugout was buzzing though. Everyone was thinking, and the team was rallying. They had become comfortable down late in games and were ready to storm back. They had done it 28 times before in the season. Why not make it 29?
“Louis, get ready to go in,” Mainieri said.
The right-hander had begun to warm up in the bullpen and realized he had finally found a role in the middle of his third season on the team. It was his game to secure.
At the end of the 2007 season, Coleman had underperformed to his standards on the baseball field, but in the classroom, he did even worse.
His GPA was much lower than his ERA, and in his exit meeting, he was not prepared for the worst.
“If you can’t fulfill your potential, I don’t want you in the program,” Mainieri told him in his office. “If I can’t trust you in the classroom, I can’t trust you on the baseball field.”
Coleman was astonished at the news and begged for a second chance. Mainieri asked him to leave the room, and he discussed a plan with pitching coach Terry Rooney.
A while later, Coleman entered the room with a proposition on the table: 15 hours of summer school consisting of classes like economics and accounting.
“I didn’t come here not to finish a job,” the Schlater, Miss., native told Mainieri. He was staying at LSU, was going to excel and achieve a lifelong dream of pitching in the Purple and Gold.
In the middle of the season, Coleman thought he should have been pitching more than he was, but in another meeting called by the junior, Mainieri told him he sat 17th on the depth chart of 20 pitchers.
“You’re wrong,” he told Mainieri. “The only reason why I’m telling you that I’m your second-best pitcher is because Bradford is one of my best friends. I’ll give it to him, but I’m your No. 2.”
“Louis, you’re going to get your chance,” Mainieri replied. “It might not be tonight, but I’m going to tell you to be ready tonight.”
He was slated to get the start in a midweek contest at Southern after an effective outing at Florida.
The start was the worst baseball experience of Coleman’s life. Rain had begun to pour, and when Coleman would pitch, he would slide. The slide mark on the mound was massive, so he shortened his stance and Southern kept making contact with his pitches and ran up the score.
“Why is this happening to me?” he thought. “I felt like I had been cheated again. It wasn’t fair.”
The next week, the Tigers were gearing up for a road trip to Southern Miss and a weekend series at Ole Miss.
On that Tuesday, Mainieri told him to get ready to throw during practice.
Coleman was furious.
He knew that throwing to the starting hitters with two outs and a man in scoring position during practice meant that he was not on the travel roster to go home and play in front of his family in Mississippi.
“There wasn’t a radar gun out there, but I promise I was throwing 95-96,” Coleman explained. “It was the best I had ever pitched in my life.”
The hitters were appalled.
“This guy is unhittable,” they told Mainieri.
He made the trip to Mississippi and found his role. After having only pitched six innings by the middle of the season, Coleman had accumulated the most innings among the LSU pitching staff outside of the starters.
He dominated on the mound, and Mainieri wanted to repay him for getting back into good graces and applying himself in the classroom again.
“It took me almost three years to get it, love it, understand it here at LSU. By the end of that season, they kept pulling the signs down, and then I start realizing this is my last baseball game. Then they throw that lagniappe up there, and I realized we might get a few more. I didn’t want it to end,” Coleman said.
“We knew we were going to have a moment. We just didn’t know when,” Pontiff explained.
Mitchell led off the eighth inning with a home run to left field, and with one out, the Anteaters went to the bullpen. Dean drew a walk. UC Irvine went to the bullpen again and induced a groundout to third, but Dean moved to second. With two outs, Matt Clark singled to right field, and the Anteater lead had been cut to three runs.
With Coleman in to pitch his second inning of the game, he worked another shutout inning, and The Box was ready to erupt.
“Okay, how are we going to do it this time?” Gibbs thought to himself. “We came out there for our half of the ninth inning, and the place just started crazy. It wasn’t will it happen, it was how is It going to happen. We knew and just had that feeling that something was going to happen.”
The Tigers were down to their final three outs—they were going to either close The Box out or force a Game 3. They were not going to go out without a dogpile.
Landry worked a walk to open the top half of the inning, and Schimpf ripped a double down the right field line to put runners in scoring position with no outs. The senior was up. Michael Hollander laced a 0-1 pitch right into the deep shortstop hole to load the bases.
Mitchell was at the plate and called for time. The umpire did not give it to the outfielder, and a strike was thrown right over the middle of the plate. He was heated, and Mainieri came out of the dugout to settle him down.
It was 0-1. Swing and a miss, 0-2.
Four straight balls later Mitchell drew a walk and made the score 7-5 UC Irvine.
It was beginning to boil at The Box. The Old Alex Box magic was making an appearance and the crowd was feeling it. The guys had towels going in the dugout. They were mimicking that 1996 team that they had continued to watch throughout the season.
They were making their moment and were going to etch their names in the history book.
“Pontiff, get a bat,” Mainieri said.
He put the junior in to pinch hit, and he swung on the fourth offering. The ball took a crazy hop over the third baseman’s head, and the Anteater could only get one out instead of turning the double play.
There was one out, and the Tigers needed one run to tie the game.
First pitch swinging, Dean dropped one into right field. Tie game.
The Box, painted in gold, erupted.
“We just need to win this game,” Gibbs thought. “If we can get to Game 3, it’s done.”
Ochinko followed with a single of his own, and LeMahieu hit a sacrifice fly, which gave LSU the 9-7 lead.
They had done it. Just three more outs.
A pinch hitter for the Anteaters sent a ball into left field that looked like a sure single, but Mitchell laid out for the ball and made SportsCenter’s Top 10 to keep the bases empty.
There was one out, and UC Irvine’s next pinch hitter doubled down the right field line.
Coleman was running on fumes, but he induced a foul out and a pop out to end the game.
The Tigers had completed the comeback and forced a Game 3.
It was one for the ages at The Box, and everyone knew it.
“There was no way in hell that we were going to lose Game 3 Monday,” Pontiff explained. “It didn’t matter if we were playing the New York Yankees the next day. We were going to find a way to win. We had a goal, a dream and a mission that whole year to get to Omaha, and that’s what catapulted us there.”
8,173 fans. That’s how many fans packed The Box for one final game. One final sendoff. The lines were to Nicholson Drive as droves of people were getting into the gates for one last tribute to The Box.
The Tigers erupted for six runs in the top of the first thanks to three consecutive blasts from designated hitter Dean, catcher Gibbs and first baseman Clark.
LSU added three more runs in the next two frames and put the game out of reach with a seven-run fifth inning.
In the bottom of the eighth with the score at 19-7, Mainieri yelled for utility player Buzzy Haydel, who had entered in the top of the inning at first base.
“Now Buzzy, I want you to buggy-whip one out of here.”
“OK coach,” he replied.
He ripped the fourth offering he saw over the left field wall for the final home run in Alex Box Stadium history.
Mainieri was gleaming from ear to ear.
“You did it, Buzzy! You buggy-whipped that ball out of here!”
Seven home runs were recorded that day. Two by Schimpf, one by Dean, Gibbs, Clark, Johnny Dishon and Haydel, and the Tigers had the 20-7 lead.
The Tigers’ lone senior position player, Michael Hollander, fittingly drove an RBI single through the left side in his final home at-bat at The Box to account for the final margin.
Those 22 Louisiana boys accomplished their dreams and took one final victory lap in The Box.
“It was a magical night,” Mainieri said. “We couldn’t have played any better. The crowd was soaking up every minute and nobody left. We secured one more dogpile in the Old Alex Box to go to Omaha.”
To think just six weeks before the Tigers were at the bottom of the conference and were now one of the eight teams left standing on their way to Omaha.
Haydel ran onto the field and staked an LSU flag in center field. LSU was back. For good.
“It was the most crowded victory lap that I remember,” Pontiff said. “The fans didn’t want to leave The Box. We didn’t want to leave The Box. I think Bill Franques must have run out of music because it was the longest victory lap ever. It was like a Mardi Gras parade.”
There was an old sign that hung on the walls at The Box that read “If you can see it, you can believe it.”
At the beginning of the season, these Tigers saw their destiny, believed in it and gave The Box a proper sendoff.
A Sea of Gold in Omaha
The thought that had been in the back of everyone’s minds had come to fruition. The senior class made it Omaha, keeping the streak alive.
“We really had a group who showed us the way as freshmen and sophomores,” Schimpf said of Bradford and Hollander “If it wasn’t for them showing us how to do things at LSU, like how to work and carry ourselves, I don’t know if we would’ve been in Omaha.”
Getting back to the College World Series put LSU baseball back on the map, but it had business to tend to.
Some of the team was taken aback by the immensity of the event. The Tigers were confident in what they could achieve, but the big challenge was that LSU had not won a game in Omaha since 2000.
The Tigers’ history of success never eluded them as the story immediately went from when will they get back to Omaha to when will LSU win again at the sport’s elite event?
That win would not happen in Game 1 against North Carolina.
Hollander led the game off with a home run to give the Tigers an early lead, but a three-run bottom half gave the Tar Heels a lead that they would not surrender. Behind a starting performance from Alex White, North Carolina won 8-4.
It was a tough loss, but LSU had to forget about it if they were to earn their first win in Omaha since 2000. It was win or go home and the Tigers were taking on Rice.
Through the first 8.5 innings, it looked like the Tigers may have to pack up early to go home. LSU trailed 5-2 with just three outs to work with. There was still a little bit of magic left for the 2008 squad.
LSU loaded the bases with one out in the bottom half of the ninth. A misplayed ball by the Rice shortstop off the bat of Mitchell lessened the gap to two runs. Dean was coming to the dish.
On a 1-0 offering, Dean, like he had done so many times throughout the season, launched a clutch, bases-clearing, walk-off double to propel the Tigers to sweet victory.
“Now we don’t have to hear any more how LSU hadn’t won a game in Omaha in how many years,” Mainieri recounted a decade later in his office. “We’ve got that monkey off our back.”
The magic of the 2008 season ran out three days later, though, when the Tigers squared off with UNC again. With the game tied at two, Coleman was pitching for the Tigers. He suffered his first loss of the season after giving up a grand slam in the ninth inning. The Tigers were unable to answer in the bottom half of the inning.
“I’m hurting very badly because the team gave everything and left it all on the field,” Mainieri said following the loss. “We ran out of miracles. I’ll look back on the season with fond thoughts, but it hurts right now. Our kids competed as hard as they could and obviously we want the season to go on forever, but tonight it came to a halt.”
The 2008 season was critical. To this date, the 23-game winning streak is still the longest in any sport in LSU history. In 18 of those games, LSU had to come from behind to earn the victory
After starting 23-16-1 (6-11-1 SEC) through the first 40 games, the Tigers became an unfathomable force as LSU finished with the most wins since 2000. Gibbs described what began on April 22 on the road against Tulane as the snowball effect.
“Once we started winning, people were coming to more games, and there were sellouts. It was like an unstoppable train of wins.”
A successful season, but at the time nobody knew how critical it was.
The 2008 team had two four-year seniors and without Bradford or Hollander, it may have not achieved the same success it did. Their leadership and inspiration were integral parts to the 23-game win streak, but heading out of 2008, the Tigers now had over 30 players with immeasurable experience heading into 2009.
“Even though we didn’t win the national championship in ’08,” Mainieri explained, “that team laid the groundwork. Even things like Coleman giving up the grand slam against UNC, helped us win the national championship in ’09.”
Just as Coleman used the grand slam he surrendered as motivation for his senior season, the entire squad used the loss at the College World Series as motivation. Following the 2008 season, nobody inside the team talked about anything but getting back to Omaha in 2009.
In the days of Bertman, it felt as though any time you put on the LSU uniform, wins would follow just because it was LSU.
“Now that’s back because you come here and Coach makes you believe it and makes you work harder than anybody else in the country,” Gibbs explained.
The 2008 season laid the groundwork for LSU to return to consistent national prominence under Mainieri.
2008 was the last year that anyone took LSU lightly.
Under the Lights at The New Box
February 20, 2009, was opening night at the New Alex Box Stadium.
Following the 2008 season, Clark moved on after the draft, but the Tigers were fortunate to hang on to reliever Coleman.
Coleman was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 14th round of the 2008 Major League Baseball draft.
He had his mind set on a monetary figure, but the Nationals were short in their one conversation. He never heard from them again.
“Deep down, even if they offered that amount, I don’t know if I would have taken it,” Coleman explained. “We had the new Alex Box coming, and I wasn’t finished.”
To repay him for staying for his senior season and to honor his grit in the 2008 season, Mainieri handed Coleman the ball to open The New Box.
The veteran-laden team was ranked No. 1 to open the season and had 24 returners.
At 7:16 p.m., Coleman fired a strike, and the team had left off right where it ended the previous season and highlighted the night with a home run by Dean.
“We weren’t finished,” Coleman emphasized.
To be continued.