Don’t Fault Mainieri for LSU’s Loss – From the Bird’s Nest
When it works, you’re a genius.
When it doesn’t, you’re an idiot.
Paul Mainieri is LSU’s baseball coach. He gets paid a lot of money to make tough decisions. And, his dumbest day in baseball was probably smarter than any of ours.
But Mainieri is being roundly second guessed for his decision to let Raph Rhymes swing away with Mason Katz at first with nobody out in the ninth inning of LSU’s 2-1 loss to UCLA. Mainieri originally sent Rhymes up to bunt, a curious choice considering Rhymes had exactly no sacrifices on the year. Zero. In crucial situations, players who are good bunters are asked to bunt. Those who aren’t, aren’t.
Mainieri said afterward in a regular season game, he would have let Rhymes swing away from the beginning. However, in this case, considering Rhymes had hit into 13 double plays this season, and considering UCLA’s closer, David Berg, was a strikeout/ground ball pitcher, Mainieri thought the bunt might serve the Tigers best. Then the count went to 2-0.
Now, Mainieri decided to take a chance. He knew on 2-0, Rhymes would get a good pitch to hit. And, with Katz, a good baserunner on first, decided to start the runner and play hit and run. Even with a ground ball, Mainieri felt, the Tigers would be able to stay out of a double play with Rhymes hitting.
Now, we know what happened next. Rhymes hit into his 14th double play of the season.
But, do you understand how many things had to go wrong for LSU in order for that to happen.
First, Rhymes got a pitch to hit and scalded it. If he hits a routine ground ball to third, UCLA probably gets the runner at first. But Rhymes hit it…hard.
Second, UCLA was in their “no doubles” defense. The ball was hit so hard that if third baseman Kevin Kramer was playing his normal position, the ball is by him for a double and Katz, running on the pitch, may have scored from first base.
Third, the ball fell right at Kramer’s feet. Give the UCLA first baseman credit for being able to knock down that ball. But credit (or curse) the baseball gods for having the ball fall right at his feet. If it glances either way or even if it just rolls five feet in front, UCLA doesn’t turn the double play.
Fourth, the defense had to execute perfectly. And, they did. Kramer threw the ball where he wanted second baseman Cody Regis to be and Regis made a perfect turn and throw to get Rhymes at first base.
Four different parts to a play. If ANY of them go Mainieri’s way, we’re talking about how bold (and smart) he was to play hit-and-run. We’ll never know whether Rhymes would have successfully bunted. After all, he didn’t have a single sacrifice all season, which tells me he didn’t bunt much in batting practice.
Those that are too busy pointing a finger at the coach have missed the reason(s) LSU lost. The defense lapsed…twice. And, that’s very uncharacteristic of LSU, one of the nation’s best fielding teams. And, give UCLA credit for doing what good teams do: they made the Tigers pay. Despite hot having had a single hit with a runner in scoring position, the Bruins managed to manufacture two runs out of two mistakes.
And, even with the mistakes, the Tigers still win the game if their offense has better at bats.
The Tigers managed only four hits off starter Adam Plutko, a hard throwing fly ball pitcher whose stuff is tailor made for T. D. Ameritrade Park. Fly balls go there to die. Mason Katz managed to hit one out, but two more long fly balls fell harmlessly into Bruin gloves. And, when Katz reached on an error to start the ninth inning (it should have been ruled a hit), LSU got the lead runner on base for the first time all night.
LSU probably has the best balance of offense and defense of any team in the College World Series. And, that’s part of the reason Aaron Nola had not lost a game all season. But Sunday night, the Tigers were less effective against UCLA’s pitching than they were against Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma.
Go ahead and put this all on Mainieri’s shoulders if you want. In fact, he’d rather take the responsibility himself. But LSU’s loss, with exception of Nola, was a total team effort.