BATON ROUGE, La. — For the first time in nearly a decade, the college baseball community isn’t listening to LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri’s warning.
As voted on by the league’s 14 coaches, the LSU baseball team was picked to finish fourth in the SEC West last week, trailing behind Arkansas, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. This comes one year after LSU won the West and the conference championship outright and competed in the College World Series final versus Florida. Naturally, LSU has a ton of talent to replace from that national runner-up team, including all three of its starting pitchers and more than half of its home runs.
As Mainieri remembers, his team was in a similar position a decade ago heading into the 2008 season. And he told his team something that year which he said he thinks still applies all these years later.
“I remember standing in front of the team and I remember telling them that fall, which I thought was rather bold, ‘This will be the last season that anybody will ever take LSU lightly again in baseball,'” Mainieri said. “Sure enough, that preseason we were picked to be No. 5 in the SEC West, and there were only six teams back then.
“We ended up winning the West, being a national seed, going to Omaha, and then of course the next year we won the national championship,” Mainieri continued. “And I don’t think we’ve been picked below 1 or 2 in the last nine years.”
So yes. It’s been a long time since LSU was picked to contend with the pack in the middle of the SEC West. But it’s worth noting that being stuck in the middle of the SEC West still means being one of the best teams in the country. In the preseason D1 Baseball rankings, the three teams ahead of LSU in the West are all ranked in the top 10. So are Florida and Kentucky. And Mississippi State is No. 12. Vanderbilt is No. 14.
That leaves LSU at No. 16, but still in the bottom half of the SEC. It’s a new experience, but it might be more of a commentary on the strength of the SEC than on LSU’s weaknesses.
“Fourth in the SEC West is still about No. 9 or No. 10 in the country, so it’s not that bad,” Mainieri added. “But again, those rankings don’t mean anything. We’re looking forward to the competition and facing all those teams that were picked ahead of us. Let’s put it that way.”
To sophomore infielder Josh Smith, these rankings sparked a bit of a fire. He’s taking the position the Philadelphia Eagles did heading into Super Bowl 52 — sometimes it’s fun to be the underdog.
“I guess it just motivates us to not let people sleep on us as much as they are,” Smith said. “We’re excited. We like being the underdog. A lot of people are talking about how we’re inexperienced. We love that, man. People are doubting us and it kind of inspires us.”
What’s next for LSU baseball?
The LSU baseball team opens its season on Friday in a home tilt versus Notre Dame at 7 p.m. CT. Series action will continue with a matchup Saturday at 4 p.m. CT and Sunday at 11 a.m. CT. All games will be available for stream through WatchESPN. Be sure to follow SEC Country beat writers Alex Hickey and Nick Suss for live updates from Alex Box Stadium all weekend.