OMAHA, Neb. – There are few words sweeter than what LSU coach Paul Mainieri heard on Friday after his Tigers thrashed Arkansas at the College World Series to clinch a spot in the national title series.
The comment was an obvious fact to everyone but struck a nerve with Mainieri. The Tigers are playing for the national title, the reporter said. How does that make you feel?
Mainieri took a second to think about it. He seemed to want to be emotional about it. But collected his thoughts and answered the question without a hint of a tear. But even with the expectations Mainieri and LSU fans have about their program, it was a special moment for the third-year coach. It's one that he'll likely never forget.
He's finally playing for a national title. What every coach aspires to do in their career.
"Haven't really had time to think about [the accomplishment of making a title series] in those terms," Mainieri said. "I'm sure when I'm alone with my wife, father, sons and daughters, I'll probably talk about the possibility of winning the national title. It's just a dream come true that we've gotten to this point. But honestly, we expected to be in this situation."
That hasn't always been the case with Mainieri at the helm.
When Mainieri took the LSU job in 2006, many Tigers fans expected immediate results. In '07, the Tigers struggled to a 29-26 record. Some wondered if Mainieri was the right man for the job. Others let Mainieri get some bad attitudes out of the program before rushing into judgment.
The waiting didn't last long.
In Mainieri's second season, the Tigers cruised to a 49-19 record and put together the longest winning streak in SEC history. The Tigers also stormed through the postseason and earned another CWS bid, falling short against North Carolina in bracket play.
Again, another step forward for Mainieri. But after making it to Omaha last season and welcoming back a wealth of talented players this season, a national title was the expectation.
That was just fine with the coach.
"You know, I don't really have a problem with that attitude. If anything, it just shows that people care about our program," Mainieri told me earlier this season. "The expectations here are just something you have to embrace."
The Tigers began the season with nine consecutive wins and showed shades of the dominant team they were expected to be. But after a series loss to Big Ten foe Illinois a few weeks into the season, some wondered if perhaps the Bayou Bengals were overrated.
That question, of course, was answered in due time with an incredibly strong SEC record, a regular season title and an SEC tournament title.
In NCAA regional play, the Tigers made easy work of the Baton Rouge Regional field and swept Rice in a super regional.
Now in Omaha, the Tigers are flexing their muscles. They also don't appear to be willing to let their guard down anytime soon with their consistent play that has included stellar defense, timely and powerful hitting and solid pitching.
"I think LSU has played the best baseball in this tournament. They've been the most consistent team," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "Most people probably would pick them as the favorite. But if this series is about drama, then we've got that covered."
The Longhorns certainly seem to have destiny on their side, but Mainieri's Tigers have been on another level in three games in Omaha. Starting pitcher Anthony Ranaudo had a tough first outing but responded with dominance on Friday. The offense is on fire with veteran Blake Dean leading the way. Even the defense has been excellent with Mikie Mahtook and others making some beautiful plays in the past week.
Everything so far in Omaha has fallen into place for Mainieri.
The Tigers are playing excellent and have all their guns loaded with ace pitcher Louis Coleman ready to go in the CWS championship series opener. Ranaudo, meanwhile, likely will start Game 3, but also could start Game 2.
Mainieri was at Notre Dame when the Tigers won their last national title in 2000. He hopes to add a sixth national title to the LSU record books.
LSU Tigers, 2009 national champions.
Those would be the sweetest words for Mainieri. No close second.