BATON ROUGE, La. — The comparison is obvious.
Heading into the 2017 season, the LSU baseball team has the same expectations on it that the 2016 LSU football team had — play for a national championship.
The LSU baseball team opened up practice for its 2017 season Friday afternoon, kicking off a campaign where its expected to be among the top teams in the SEC, and the nation. LSU ranks No. 2 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll and Perfect Game poll, and No. 4 in the Baseball America poll, joining SEC foes Florida and South Carolina in the top 5 in both cases.
RELATED: LSU announces 2017 baseball schedule
The strength of this year’s squad will be in its experience. From left-handed pitcher Jared Poché to infielders Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman, LSU is returning more elite seniors than most college teams ever see.
All three passed on the leverage and signing bonuses they could’ve gotten in the MLB Draft last summer to return for one last hurrah at LSU, where they’ll be joined by a dominant class of juniors including right-handed starter Alex Lange, first-team All-SEC designated hitter Bryce Jordan and outfielder Greg Deichmann.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because you’re a football fan. Just change the names Poché, Robertson and Freeman to Beckwith, White and Pocic and Lange, Jordan and Deichmann to Fournette, Adams and Dupre.
Then change the name Les Miles to LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri. Then you’ll understand the sort of pressure this team has on it.
“Obviously there’s a lot of optimism,” Mainieri said. “We’ve been pretty unanimous in the top five in all those preseason polls, although those preseason polls don’t mean a thing. But it does signify that there other people out there that also believe we have a chance to have a pretty good year.”
To Mainieri, this phenomenon isn’t new. Now in his 11th year as the coach of the LSU baseball team, Mainieri said being the head coach of one of the most storied programs in college baseball comes with an inherent pressure. No measure of polls or expectations can do anything to intensify that.
“I don’t think there’s any added pressure ever at LSU,” Mainieri said. “The pressure level is always at a very high level. So I don’t think you can ratchet it up any more than it already is. Our goal is to make it Omaha, to play for a national championship and hopefully win it. That will always be the goal as long as I’m the coach at LSU.”
For the LSU football team, the pressure was too much. But for the LSU baseball team, it seems like pressure is going to help it thrive.
Just ask Poché. To him, pressure is almost relieving in a way. Everyone expects the team to succeed, so it has to. It’s a way of syncing a group into focus.
“It just gives us more confidence to go out there and play relaxed,” Poché said. “At LSU you’re always expected to have high expectations and win pretty much every game. But this year with all the guys coming back, I guess the expectations are even higher. But at the same time, we’re still going out there and playing the game of baseball that we’ve always played and let the results take care of themselves.”
Things are different for guys like Poché. They’ve seen the expectations be high and they’ve seen them be even higher.
But for the incoming freshmen, the group knows nothing else. LSU is expected to start two everyday freshmen: third baseman Josh Smith and first baseman Jake Slaughter. That’s on top of pitchers Eric Walker and Zack Hess, two right-handers who are expected to compete for the Tigers’ Sunday starter job.
Since it’s all these freshmen know, it’s not anything bizarre. But still, the message they give is reminiscent of a team aware of what’s expected of it.
“We come to practice every day. We try to do our best to breathe. Relax,” Smith said. “It’s different playing with nobody up in the stands. I’ve never really played in front of 12,000. (Mainieri) does a good job of preparing us for it. I think we’re going to be ready for it.”
And if they are ready for it, Smith knows what the potential is.
“I think we’ve got a shot to do something special this year,” he said.