By Eric Olson
The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — The matchup for the College World Series finals certainly bolsters the case for those who say the best baseball in the land is played in the Southeastern Conference.
To get to the best-of-three finals starting tonight, LSU (52-18) beat an Oregon State team, which had the highest winning percentage of any program in four decades, twice in two days. Florida (50-19) became the fourth team in CWS history to shut out an opponent twice with a pair of 3-0 wins over TCU wrapped around a 9-2 loss to the Horned Frogs.
So here they are, the teams that shared the SEC regular-season championship playing for the national title in Omaha.
“I think this is how it had to be,” LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson said Sunday. “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. I think both teams are happy with who is in the finals.”
With eight players taken in the first 10 rounds of last year’s Major League Baseball draft, the 2016 Gators were the season-long favorites to break through with a championship. They went 0-2 in Omaha.
This year’s team lacks depth and dynamic offense, but has been able to count on dominant pitching and defense. The Gators have played 25 one-run games and won 18 of them.
“I had a feeling early on if we stayed healthy that we had the ingredients to be successful out here,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
“I thought our starting pitching was going to be as good as anybody’s in the country. We needed to figure out our bullpen, and Michael Byrne has turned out to be outstanding at the end.”
LSU leads the all-time series with Florida 61-47-1, but the Gators won two of three in Gainesville on March 24-26 in the teams’ only meetings this season.
“If the truth be told, I was rooting for Kevin and the Gators last night,” said Tigers coach Paul Mainieri, sitting next to O’Sullivan at the news conference.
“I just think it’s an awesome thing that these two SEC schools get to play for a national championship. Probably the only person that’s happier than you and I, Kevin, is Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the SEC. He’s anxious to get up here and get behind home plate so as not to show any favoritism.”
Here are some things to know about the 2017 College World Series:
THE STAGE IS SET
This will be the third all-SEC final. South Carolina beat Florida in 2011 and LSU won over Alabama in 1997. The Tigers are going for their seventh national championship, and first since 2009, while Florida is in the finals for the third time and looking for its first title.
With Florida having played four games in seven days and LSU having played five in eight days, the teams are getting creative. Florida will start Brady Singer (8-5, 3.18 ERA) in Game 1, reliever Tyler Dyson (3-0, 3.55) or closer Michael Byrne (4-5, 1.74) in Game 2 and, if necessary, Jackson Kowar (12-1, 4.15) would be available in Game 3.
Senior Russell Reynolds (1-1, 8.59) makes his first start of the season in Game 1 for LSU. Jared Poche’ (12-3, 3.33) will pitch Tuesday, and Alex Lange would be the likely starter if the series goes to Game 3.
THE BALL IS CARRYING
CWS teams have taken advantage of winds blowing out to hit 22 home runs through 14 games, the most since the event moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. Typically, the prevailing south wind this time of year makes it difficult to get the ball out of the park, but winds from the north and west the past week have made the home run a factor. “You can’t pitch scared,” Singer said. “Yes, the ball is leaving the yard, but that’s part of baseball. Just try to keep it low.”
PAPIERSKI MAKES HISTORY
LSU’s Michael Papierski became the first player in the 71-year history of the CWS to hit a home run from both sides of the plate in the same game, according to NCAA research. Papierski did it Saturday against Oregon State, going deep from the left side in the second inning and from the right side in the fourth. The Houston Astros’ ninth-round draft pick has hit three of the Tigers’ CWS-leading seven homers.
HAIR’S STAYING BLOND
LSU’s Robertson dyed his brown hair blond after a 13-1 loss to Oregon State last Monday. He said he doesn’t like it — and neither does his mom, Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey — but he’s not changing it now that the Tigers are playing for the title.
“It was funny for the first day, maybe first day or two,” he said, “and then you wake up day three, day four, and you’re like, ‘I still got blond hair.’ I look at the board after a play, and I’ll see myself and kind of jump. Looks like somebody dumped a plate of noodles on my head.”