Fountain of youth
LSU builds strong foundation around young talent
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Alex Bregman had already made up his mind that he was turning down the Boston Red Sox and instead enrolling at LSU as he watched upstart Stony Brook celebrate a College World Series berth following its upset of the Tigers last year.
The next day, Bregman logged into Twitter and guaranteed that LSU would get to Omaha in 2013, when he would be the shortstop.
"I knew I would be able to make a difference and expected I could do even more than I've done so far," said Bregman, recently named the national freshman hitter of the year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and All-America by Baseball America. "I'm just happy we're in Omaha and that's the main reason I came to school. I just wanted to win a national championship."
Thanks to a foundation of youth that includes players like Bregman, freshman outfielder Mark Laird and the sophomore ace of the pitching staff, Aaron Nola, LSU (57-9) will be among the favorites in Omaha after tying a school record for wins. The Tigers open play on Sunday against UCLA, and the so-far unbeatable Nola (12-0), will be on the mound.
Mason Katz is among the four-year seniors who would have comprised the first class since 1982 not to make at least one trip to Omaha during their LSU careers had the Tigers not made it this year. Katz is quick to give credit to rise of younger players.
''Those were pieces we were missing from last year,'' Katz said.
Nola went 7-4 as a freshman. This season, he has been arguably the best pitcher in college baseball, not losing a game in the formidable Southeastern Conference, then going 2-0 so far in the NCAA tournament.
While Nola's fastball can reach the low-to-mid 90s, he does not have to try to overpower hitters because he is seemingly able to put his fastball, breaking ball and off-speed pitches wherever he wants.
But what impresses both coach Paul Mainieri and his teammates as much as his accuracy is his confidence and mental toughness.
For Mainieri, one of Nola's defining moments came in the NCAA regional round, when three errors committed behind him allowed Sam Houston State a five-run first inning. Nola responded with six shutout innings as LSU roared back.
In the super regional, he went head-to-head with Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray, the third overall pick in the draft. He pitched a two-hit shutout and Katz will never forget a brief conversation he had with Nola in the tunnel behind the dugout around the sixth inning of that game.
"I went down there and said, 'Hey, we're going to get a run.' And [Nola] goes, 'Well, if you score one, we win,'" Katz recalled. "That's who Aaron is. He always keeps us in the game."
The way the double-elimination College World Series is set up, LSU could pitch Nola as many as three times and Nola said he embraces the chance to take as much responsibility for LSU's success as the team gives him.
"I feel good about it. We're playing for everything," Nola said. "You're supposed to have that mentality that, 'I'm the best.' ... Every time I go on the mound, that's how I think."
Mainieri describes Bregman as a player who combines supreme talent with an unparalleled work ethic. The kind of player that can be found hitting in the batting cage, alone, at 8 a.m. on a fall Sunday, or persuading a team manager to hit him grounders when everyone else has left the stadium and the lights are off, while he has to field the ball in darkness.
"You can't fake that," Mainieiri said. "He just loves it that much ... He's going to get every accolade you can get in your time here and you can't do that without talent, but unfortunately some kids that have a lot of talent don't have that kind of work ethic."
Bregman has hit .380 this season with six home runs, 18 doubles, seven triples and 52 runs batted in. His 104 hits are an LSU freshman record. He has stolen 16 bases on 17 attempts.
He might not have come to LSU if not for a broken finger that sidelined him his senior year of high school. Bregman arrived at LSU expecting to be a difference-maker, and endeared himself to teammates by putting them first. Katz recalled standing nearby, last fall, when Bregman was asked about his goals.
"He said, 'Get the seniors to Omaha,'" Katz recalled. "To have a freshman come in and not care about personal statistics or anything - just to help us go to Omaha and win a national championship. That's a guy you want to play with."