OMAHA, Neb. — It’s really not meant to look this easy.
So far, though, LSU’s journey back to the top of the college baseball world hasn’t required much heavy lifting.
The No. 1-ranked Tigers blazed past Arkansas 9-1 Monday at Rosenblatt Stadium, seizing one of the cherished catbird seats at the College World Series.
The Tigers (53-16) get three days off and can sit back and watch as the Razorbacks (40-23) and Virginia battle to determine who gets the next shot at LSU at 1 p.m. Friday.
If the Tigers win that game, they punch a ticket to the best-of-three national championship series, which starts Monday.
To arrive at that enviable position, LSU jumped on Arkansas quickly to give senior pitcher Louis Coleman some immediate breathing room.
Freshman Mikie Mahtook launched a three-run first-inning home run to kick-start the Tigers and Coleman worked through a rocky beginning to discover a comfort zone.
By the time Coleman exited after six innings on the way to his 14th victory, LSU had erupted for a five-run sixth inning, anchored by home runs from Austin Nola and Blake Dean.
That was all the Tigers needed to cruise for their 12th win in a row, and the most important of Coleman’s career and coach Paul Mainieri’s three-year tenure.
How important? Now the Tigers get some extra time, which Coleman really wanted.
To make sure he and his teammates get to tour the world-famous Henry Doorly Zoo next door to Rosenblatt.
“Knowing that it could be a three-game swing,” Coleman said at first when asked about his frame of mind before the game.
“We talked about it a little bit before the game started, saying if we win (Monday), it makes it a whole lot easier. If we lose, then we’ve got to win two or maybe three to get to the end. That was really what my mentality was.”
Then after a brief pause: “And we get to go the zoo.”
Baffled earlier this season when Coleman twirled a two-hit, complete-game shutout against them, the Razorbacks couldn’t do much more with him Monday, even though he wasn’t nearly as dominant.
“When you give ball to Louis, you know he’s going to compete with everything that he’s got for his team,” Mainieri said. “Even though maybe he wasn’t electric early, I thought he became electric in the middle innings and his stuff got better as the game went on.”
Mahtook made calming down much easier for Coleman and everybody else.
With hard-throwing right-hander Brett Eibner on the mound, leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu lashed a single to right-center field to begin the game and stole second base with Ryan Schimpf at the plate.
Schimpf fell behind Eibner 1-and-2, fouled off four pitches, took a second ball and fouled off four more pitches before finally drawing a walk to end a 13-pitch battle.
Eibner nearly got off the hook when he got Blake Dean on a fly ball to left field and struck out cleanup hitter Micah Gibbs.
But Mahtook worked the count full, fouling off a 2-and-2 offering, and then blasted a bomb toward the left-field foul pole that just cleared the top of the fence for three runs.
“He threw me a slider on the first pitch and I chased it in the dirt,” Mahtook said. “After that, I pretty much saw every pitch he threw pretty well. He tried to sneak a fastball by me, and I fouled it off. Then I was looking for the slider, because he’d thrown it a couple of times. He threw the slider and left it up a little bit. I put a good swing on it and was able to get enough of it to get it out.”
Added Mainieri, “I thought Mikie Mahtook really gave us the big lift in the first inning. We had first and second and nobody out, we did nothing in the next two at-bats. And then Mikie, with two outs, hits a three-run homer, and it’s off to the races for us.”
Arkansas took a small bite out of the lead with a run in the first when Ben Tschepikow laced a one-out opposite-field double to left, Scott Lyons singled and Andy Wilkins knocked home a run on a fly ball to left field.
That was all the Hogs mustered, though. Arkansas threatened in the second and third as well, but Coleman evaded trouble both times.
In the third, he magnified the Razorbacks’ frustration by striking out pinch-hitter Jacob House with the bases loaded with no damage done.
Arkansas never mounted another serious threat on the way to its first loss of the NCAA tournament. Starting with House’s strikeout, Coleman clicked into a groove and retired 10 of the final 12 batters he faced.
“You have to give credit to Louis Coleman,” Hogs coach Dave Van Horn said. “He was outstanding.
“We were getting runners on, just not driving them in. … We were down 4-1 with the bases loaded, and we didn’t get the hit. We didn’t even hit the ball hard. If we get the hit, we’re right there.”
LSU, meanwhile, kept pummeling the baseball.
In the second, Schimpf doubled home LeMahieu for a 4-1 lead.
Arkansas reliever TJ Forrest — a former LSU pitcher — quieted the Tigers bats for a while with 3 1/3 scoreless frames.
But Nola, the nine-hole hitter, injected some new life when he cranked out a 2-and-0 pitch for a solo home run in the sixth. Schimpf walked with two outs and Dean unloaded a two-run bomb to right that stretched the lead to 7-1.
Two more runs came home after Gibbs singled, Mahtook walked and both scored on Jared Mitchell’s base hit to left field — Mahtook when House’s throw to third base was wide left.
As meaningful as the final five-run assault was, Dean credited Mahtook’s early blow for LSU’s offensive prowess.
“Mahtook brings a lot of fire to the team,” Dean said. “The older guys tend to go with the flow. When he hits a home run, he almost takes your arm off. As veterans, we try to calm them down and the young guys bring the fire.”
As does Coleman, who pitched in a fifth consecutive CWS game Monday and responded with another gritty performance, this time with a lot of help from his friends.
“When you get Louis nine runs, it’s going to be hard to lose the ballgame,” Dean said.
Added Mainieri, “Every time you give him the ball you expect him to keep you in the game and give you a chance to win.”
The Tigers are on fire at #1! The 2009 College World Series is theirs for the taking!
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