OMAHA, Neb. -- LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s players begged and pleaded for him to do it.
With the Tigers facing elimination and the program still searching for its first College World Series win at TD Ameritrade Park, Mainieri finally caved.
The jersey was back on.
“Desperate times calls for desperate measures,” Mainieri said. “What have we got to lose. We'll see if it helps.”
As it turns out, it did, and the Tigers have at least two more days reserved in Omaha to show for it. LSU used a four-run third inning on Tuesday to capture a 5-3 victory against Cal State Fullerton at the venue that the Tigers hadn’t gotten the best of in its previous three chances.
“It’s a beautiful ballpark and a wonderful city,” Mainieri said of TD Ameritrade Park, the home of the CWS since 2011, “but it was like it was a curse on the LSU Tigers.”
So the coach decided to mix things up. The first was ditching the purple pullover, his usual game attire. As Alex Bregman and the rest of the team pointed out, the last time Mainieri had worn the jersey on gameday was in 2009 -- LSU’s last national championship.
“You’re one game from elimination at the College World Series, you do whatever the players want you to do,” he said. “I would’ve coached standing on my head if they wanted me to.”
The next was a change in the lineup. Mainieri, figuring Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook would start left-hander John Gavin, wanted a right-handed hitter to break up Mark Laird and Jake Fraley, the duo of lefties he had previously used at the top of the order. So the eight-year coach approached Bregman on Monday while he was taking grounders to see if the two could find a solution to the problem.“I’d like to lead off,” Bregman told Mainieri.
“That's what I was hoping you would say,” the coach responded back.
Then the curveball came Monday night: right-hander Connor Seabold would get the start. Mainieri’s cell phone receives a text from his superstar shortstop. Am I still leading off?
He was. And all Bregman did was reach base his first four times at the plate, including a lead-off single to begin the game-changing third inning as part of a 4-for-5 day.
A 10-3 loss to TCU on Sunday saw Tigers lead-off batters reach base only once -- a Bregman single in the fourth. “I really felt that we just needed a spark at the top of the order,” Mainieri said. “Who is a tougher out than Alex Bregman?”
On Tuesday, Bregman delivered with singles to start off the first, third and fourth.
“I felt comfortable out there,” he said. “I was trying to square balls up and put together quality at-bats and find ways on base and try to create some offense.
“We wanted to kind of get our swagger back offensively. We've had a really good offense all year long, and it's coming.”
While Mainieri didn’t expect four hits, he knew he’d get quality at-bats from Bregman, work deep into counts and put the ball in play. All it took was a seven-pitch at-bat in the first inning that lead to a single up the middle for Mainieri to get his return on investment. Bregman also added a run and a steal.
“He presents problems,” Vanderhook said of Bregman. “He gets on base, creates havoc.”
Bregman said he doesn’t care where he hits. If it leads to a Tiger win, he’s perfectly happy occupying the 9-slot. Mainieri wouldn’t say whether the junior will be back in the lead-off spot come Thursday, but with the roaring success of Tuesday, it’s hard to imagine Bregman going back to 3-hole with another elimination game on the schedule.
But if nothing else, LSU is back to feeling loose and confident. As Bregman stepped off the podium to back out into the hallway, he shouted one last message: “We got our swagger back.”