OMAHA, Neb. – National Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman stepped onto the field at TD Ameritrade Park on Friday and had one word to best sum up his experience -- “awesome.”
He and the rest of the Tigers got their first look at the three-year-old $128 million exclusive home of the NCAA Men’s College World Series with a practice day, autograph session and opening ceremonies to officially kickoff the 67th year of college baseball’s main event.
LSU head coach Paul Mainieri participated in a press conference earlier in the day with the three other coaches who will play on Sunday. Three seasons removed from a 2009 national championship in historic Rosenblatt Stadium, Mainieri soaked in the sights of the new ballpark, walked through the concourse and greeted the hundreds of LSU fans seeking autographs.
College World Series Central
“This is the mecca,” he said. “This is the pinnacle of college baseball to be in Omaha now and to be in this beautiful new ballpark.”
No. 4 national seed LSU (57-9) plays its first ever game in TD Ameritrade Park at 7 p.m. CT Sunday against UCLA (44-17) in a nationally televised game on ESPN2. The Bruins are the only team in the field who experienced the ballpark last season.
Upon arrival on Friday, the Tigers drew a crowd to take a team portrait and individual photos in front of the famed “Road to Omaha” statue. What once was a monument for fans at old Rosenblatt Stadium now stands proudly at the corner of Cuming and North 13th Streets. The statue made its move to the new park in April 2011.
LSU then made its way through the bowels of the stadium, touring the new locker room before meeting with ESPN and NCAA.com reporters at the expansive club level, which features a pavilion with a panoramic view of the stadium.
The ballpark has a Major League like feel to it. Batting cages are just steps away from each dugout, enabling teams to hit in inclement conditions or allowing a pinch hitter to get ready with some swings before he is called upon. The old organ, playing the notes of Lambert Bartak at Rosenblatt, even made its way over to the new venue.
Of the 24,000 seats, none of them feature a bad view. The concourse is twice the size of the old Rosenblatt concourse, and best of all it allows fans a view of the field even when in line for refreshments. Much of the concourse is decorated with classic CWS memorabilia and displays, including one of legendary former LSU coach Skip Bertman.
The Tigers took batting practice for an hour to get a feel for the field’s conditions. It plays similar to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, though is five feet shorter down the lines at 335 feet. The turf is thick and made of Kentucky Blue Grass.
“This is where you need to be,” said Bregman. “The playing surface is beautiful and it was great to see a lot of LSU fans here. It does play like Hoover – it’s big. This is the kind of grass I play on back home, a little slower, so I have to come get the ball at shortstop.”
LSU drew the most media coverage and autograph seekers of the eight teams on Friday as Omaha’s fan favorite makes a return for the first time in three seasons. Mainieri told reporters he was relieved that this team could experience this event following an unprecedented regular season in the program’s history.
“The great thing about our team this year is it’s just one of those teams that the chemistry is so outstanding,” he said. “It’s been a great group of kids to work with. I’m so thrilled for our seniors that they had the opportunity to get here before their careers ended.”
UCLA head coach John Savage, a former Southern Cal assistant who coached against the Tigers in the 1998 and 2000 College World Series, praised LSU fans for their support in helping grow the game of baseball.
“They have got the best fans in college baseball,” said Savage. “They’ve got the biggest support and one of the most beautiful stadiums in the country. There are no other fans like LSU fans. I’ve been on the other side when Brad Hawpe hit the home run against Mark Prior in Rosenblatt. They (fans) travel anywhere, anytime. It’s a privilege to play against them. It’s great for college baseball that they support their program as well as they do.”
The 2013 College World Series gets underway Saturday when Oregon State and Mississippi State face off in Game 1 at 2 p.m. CT on ESPN2. LSU has one final practice at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Bellevue East High School before taking the field Sunday night.
How do you create TD Ameritrade Park as a home field advantage as quickly as you can?
COACH MAINIERI: "We're going to have an awful lot of fans here, I know that, and everybody will think it's a home field advantage for us from that standpoint, and certainly we love to play in front of our people. But I think the coach speak that John just mentioned is absolutely right on. All these teams are so good that I don't believe there is a home field advantage for anybody. It just comes down to who plays better that day. That is the bottom line.
"It's making pitches, making plays, getting big hits. We're just thrilled to play in a beautiful ballpark. I'm glad to see the inside of this ballpark. I know that John and Mike have been here since it opened, and Elliott and I have not. But at the same time, it's still just a baseball game. We had the experience this year of going to a new ballpark that was pretty awesome as well, Texas A&M, and we had pretty good success over there. So I think there is something that is neat about going to a place for the first time. So I don't know if home field advantage is the right term to use for anybody.
What have you learned from scouting and looking at Adam Plutko?
COACH MAINIERI: "You can't help but admire that young man. If you looked up the word bulldog in the dictionary, there would be a picture of their pitcher. He's a three time Pac 12, all conference pitcher, and he's done that for a reason. I know John from his days at Southern Cal as a pitching coach, and starting the program back up at Irvine and what he's done at UCLA has been absolutely remarkable. Their pitching has been the hallmark of the program at UCLA. A couple years back we had a great match up when Trevor Bauer pitched against Anthony Ranaudo in the winner's bracket game. Bauer got the best of us that night.
"So we're going to have another great match up between Nola and Plutko and I can't wait. We're going to have a great seat.
Any reaction when they saw this place or is there some wow factor here?
COACH MAINIERI: "Our kids have seen an awful lot of big time college baseball, and big crowds and beautiful stadiums, so this is the mecca. This is the pinnacle of college baseball to be in Omaha now and to be at this beautiful new ballpark. So I think they're somewhat more reserved, probably, in the way they see things. We actually haven't been in the stadium. All we did is drive by it on the way to the hotel. We practice later today. I'm sure once we walk into the stadium, the eyes will get a little bit bigger, and they'll try to absorb it all. But at this point, I don't really have any other comment to make about it.
How important was it for you and do you feel like there is a little bit of relief knowing that you've gotten here?
COACH MAINIERI: "Finally, finally got here, okay? It's been a whole three years. Hey, that's what you sign up for at LSU. Nobody pulled the wool over my eyes when I took this job at LSU. I knew what I was getting into, and that is the standard. If you're afraid, you don't go to LSU, I can tell you that right now as a player or as a coach. We won the championship in '09, and I think the first question in the post game press conference can you repeat next year? So that is what you're used to around there.
"So many times I've been asked the question about losing last year to Stony Brook and not getting here, and if that was motivation for our team this year, and I'm going to tell you the same answer I've said across the board, no, it wasn't a motivation at all.
"Stony Brook came into Baton Rouge last year and outplayed us. They were better than we were, they deserved it, they earned it, and they belonged here and they played better than we did. I tipped my hat to their kids and their coaching staff because they took it to us.
"But what we took from last year's team, 2012, really was not the emphasis of the ending as much as it was how well we had played throughout the year, despite having some weaknesses that we were well aware of. But we gained a lot of confidence from the 2012 season; and going into this year, we felt like we had a chance. We were very fortunate we had a couple of seniors return in Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes in the heart of our order, then we added a few pieces, Alex Bergman, Mark Laird, et cetera, that really stepped in and made a big difference for our team.
"When we got, I said all along, that I just hoped and prayed that we could be in the same position in 2013 that we were in 2012, and that was one game away from Omaha, and hopefully we'll play better on that day than we did the year before, and we did. We beat Oklahoma 11 1, and earned our trip here to Omaha.
"I think, Eddie, there is a word I could probably use, yeah, we were maybe a little relieved to get here. But, you know, there is no more pressure in one game than in another when you're coaching at LSU. Every game feels like it's a championship game of some tournament. They expect you to win every game when you're there.
"So you just have to learn how to manage that kind of expectation, and I think we've done okay in our time there.
TD plays a lot different than Rosenblatt, it's a big ballpark. I'd like know, and everybody else here, about defense. I think that's going to be critical in the games as far as maybe talking about your arms in the outfield and how you play the inner diamond catcher short, second baseman, centerfielder as far as your defensive philosophies, for all the coaches?
COACH MAINIERI: "The park obviously plays a lot different than Rosenblatt did. It's not sitting up on a hill where the wind is galing out all the time. So pitching and defense will be paramount, being able to manufacture runs. Fortunately, for all of us, the game has changed whether we're playing it at TD Ameritrade or Alex Box Stadium or whatever field these guys are playing at. The game has changed. That is just the way it is. There are not a lot of home runs anymore. You have to play pitch and play defense.
"All these teams are here because they pitch and play defense. If you can't hold the other team down, you're not going to make it to Omaha, and you've got to be able to find a way to manufacture some runs.
"So I don't think the adjustment is going to be that big for any of us. Now I haven't coached a game in TD Ameritrade Park yet, but I may be wrong about this, but I think the field is probably going to play similar to the way the field at hoover, Alabama plays, where we play the SEC Tournament. It's a spacious park. There are not many home runs hit, and it comes down to the fundamentals of the game.
Paul, I guess a lot of people get fixated on Mason Katz and Alex Bregman, but you look at JaCoby Jones, and he was maybe a guy hitting at .245 in early March. When did the light kind of come on for him, and what's been the biggest difference for him from an offensive standpoint? What's allowed him to raise his average about 50 points?
COACH MAINIERI: "It's hard to say for sure. We always saw the potential in JaCoby, of course. He's always had bat speed and great physicalness to him. Just when he chases bad balls, he gets himself out. When he lays off bad pitches and gets a good pitch to hit, he generally can do something with it, and it's usually good stuff.
"This past weekend, he was phenomenal. Honestly, he may not admit this, but I think the draft kind of took a little pressure off him after he was finally selected. He was picked in the third round. Everybody thought he'd be a first rounder going into the year, didn't have that kind of year. Fell to the third round, but the third round is still something pretty special.
"After the draft was over, I just saw him become a lot more relaxed and carefree, and having fun. He single handedly carried us offensively this week. He hit the big triple off Gray in the 8th inning to get our winning rally started. Once the ball was in the gap, I knew it would be a triple with his speed, and of course he came home, and then the next day, a four hit game.
"So, fortunately for us, he's played great defense all year and done other things to help us win. We've just been waiting for the bat to come around. Just lately, his confidence has grown, and he's laying off bad pitches and becoming a much, much more difficult out.
My question is do you enjoy the way the game is played? You called it old time baseball, or do you feel there need to be some tweaks made with the baseball talk that's going around?
COACH MAINIERI: "Well, I don't know what else I can add except I feel the same way that these guys do as far as I think college baseball is more popular than it's ever been. But I just worry that it goes in the other direction. Because whether we want to admit it or not, we still are fighting for the fan bases and the support. I think what we have in Baton Rouge is a little bit of an aberration when you look across the country. Maybe not even at some of these programs, but in places where they're really trying to grow the game.
"We're going to get 11,000 people a game, because people in Baton Rouge are used to high level, college baseball at a competitive level for the National Championship, and they just want to win. But at other places where they're trying to grow the game, you want to make it entertaining as well.
"If I'm not mistaken, I think UNC and ourselves are the only teams that are hitting .300 as a team, and we're hitting about .306, if I'm not mistaken. I think that's skewed a little bit too far in the direction of pitching and defense. You know, there needs to be a good balance.
"I thought in '98 when LSU hit eight home runs, the bats were probably too lively. In fact, I know they were. That was skewed way too much in the other direction. But I feel like we've gone too far in the other direction.
"My personal feeling was in 2010, they had the bats right and they changed them again, but that was just my personal feeling. I like to see offense. I like to see the ability to come from behind with late inning home runs. I think that's a niche that made college baseball very exciting, and I'd just hate for us to lose that. I don't know what the answer is now, because I don't think the bats are going to change back, and we love the bats we use. But just across the board you'd like to see a little bit more offense. So anything that can get a little more offense into the game, I'd be in favor of.