BATON ROUGE, La. — Michigan basketball once had its Fab Five. For LSU baseball, it’s the “Fab Four” who are expected to be difference-makers if the Tigers are to win their first national championship since 2009.
Unlike Michigan’s freshman Fab Five, LSU’s version is a group of fourth-year players.
The Tigers opened practice for the 2017 season on Friday with the roster bolstered by four players who had the opportunity to start their professional careers this year but instead chose to return to Baton Rouge for one more run at glory. They are starting pitcher Jared Poché, shortstop Kramer Robertson, second baseman Cole Freeman and first baseman-turned-outfielder Greg Deichmann.
“I’m going to call those guys my fab four,” said 11th-year LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “Our team would have a significantly different look to it if those four guys were not back. I still think we’d have a really good team, don’t get me wrong. We’d get the job done.
“But having those four guys back just elevates your confidence in your team because of not just the experience and the ability, but the leadership that they bring back to your team.”
The players weren’t the only ones who faced difficult offseason decisions about their future. Mainieri himself came close to departing for Texas before re-upping with LSU on a seven-year deal worth $1.125 million per year.
It was while contemplating the decision to stay or go that Mainieri saw the leadership of his returning quartet shine through.
“I had to deal with something last summer not too long after the season. I had to make a decision,” Mainieri said. “Cole Freeman, Kramer Robertson, they came into my office to see me. It wasn’t like a coach talking to a young kid. You almost felt like you were talking to an adult that was very self-confident, saw the way things were.”
Freeman said the scene wasn’t unlike the one in “Rudy” where the players walk into coach Dan Devine’s office and lay down their jerseys on his desk, albeit not quite as dramatic.
“I was walking out and Greg might have been walking in. It was kind of like the Rudy-type deal,” Freeman said. “We care for him a lot. We wanted him as our leader and luckily he’s back.”
Robertson said he probably wouldn’t be in an LSU uniform this season had Mainieri bolted for the Longhorns.
“I didn’t want to play for anyone else,” said Robertson, who was drafted by the Indians in the 32nd round. “I wouldn’t be the player I am today without Coach Mainieri. If he wasn’t here, I would have signed (with Cleveland).”
Robertson believes that the players who chose to stay at LSU and Mainieri share an even closer bond than before, because each realizes their lives could have spun in five different directions this year.
“We all had that opportunity to pursue something else in our careers,” Robertson said. “Texas and LSU are probably the best two jobs in the country. And all of us dream of playing professional baseball. It’s hard when you have the opportunity to start your pro career to turn it down.”
Had the Tigers not been eliminated by eventual national champ Coastal Carolina in last year’s Super Regional, perhaps they would have pursued those different directions. Instead, the defeat stirred something in this group to finish the quest this season.
“I’ve never been to Omaha,” said Robertson, who was left off the 2015 College World Series roster. “It’s almost an obsession. It is an obsession. I have dreams about it to this day. It’s all I think about. I think we do have a bond. We’re all good friends off the field. Coming back, I think, just made this season more exciting for everybody.”