They were never supposed to be there.
Not at the beginning of season when the talk of replacing eight of nine everyday players ran rampant, nor when they opened SEC play with a series loss at home to Alabama.
Hell, even when the possum ran onto the field, they still weren’t supposed to be there.
Yet there the LSU Tigers were.
A baseball team just two wins away from the program’s latest among a laundry list of appearances in the College World Series. But when heartbreak struck on Sunday night in the form of a Coastal Carolina game-winning chopper over Chris Reid’s desperately stretched glove, the disappointment was palpable.
Because here’s the sick and twisted irony: They were supposed to be there.
After all, the hat does say “LSU” on it and with that comes the inherent expectation that those who wear the hat will be playing in Omaha come mid-June. It’s something that Paul Mainieri makes note every year in his opening statement of his first press conference of the new season.
Still, when he said it this year, you were hard pressed to believe that he actually believed it himself.
2015 was THE year in terms of the expectation being a seventh national title. 2016 though was instantly labeled a transitional year when the likes of Mark Laird, Andrew Stevenson and some guy named Alex all (rightfully so) opted to forego their senior seasons and ply their trade in the professional ranks.
Left were Jake Fraley and a bunch of question marks.
And the past few months saw those questions turn to answers. The thought of Kramer Robertson hitting over .300 was laughable back in January, let alone becoming the Tiger’s most reliable bat in the three-hole.
Antoine Duplantis, Cole Freeman? Newcomers with potential that quickly blossomed into multi-tool players to bookend the batting order.
For a season defined by expectation by formality, but none through reality, watching this team transform into a legitimate contender over these last few months has, quite simply, been a blast to watch unfold.
While a trip to Omaha wasn’t ultimately in the cards, yet another national seed and Super Regional seed has to rate somewhere near the top of Mainieri’s best coaching jobs. This team emphatically punched well above its weight class and nearly secured the knockout blow.
But for such a storied program, what the Tigers did this season will hardly resonate as the years go by. More than likely, 2016 will receive the scarlet letter for the way it ended – the first time that LSU has been swept in a Super Regional at home.
And that’s OK.
Regardless of how this season is remembered, it has set a new foundation.
The MLB draft was surprisingly kind to the Tigers and their incoming signing class this past weekend. So much so that there seems to be a better-than-small chance that Jared Poché could return for his senior season to pitch behind Alex Lange in the rotation.
Couple that with the possibility of Fraley being the only everyday position to depart for the pros, it’s looking like the Tigers will be back to shouldering lofty expectations sooner rather than later.
It also makes for a tough but enviable position for Mainieri. It’s looking like he will have more players than roster spots, which means he will be faced with some hard decisions this fall.
He will have to make everyone of them count, too.
Because next year, the LSU Tigers are supposed to be there.