BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The crowds packing NCAA tournament games
at LSU for the better part of the last two decades rarely have left disappointed.
Except, that is, when Rice comes to Baton Rouge. The Owls are in town again this weekend with a berth to the College World Series on the line.
The lineups of the Rice teams that eliminated the Tigers in the old Alex Box Stadium in 1995 and 2005 may have been different, but the head coach each time was Wayne Graham, who's now won 830 games since taking over the Owls program in 1992.
"Nothing would surprise me of any situation that Wayne Graham was successful in, because the guy's a great coach," said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri, who referred to Graham as "my idol."
"If they had success here in the past, God bless 'em," Mainieri continued. "My job is to try to keep them from having success now."
The best-of-three series opens Friday night at the new Alex Box Stadium, which opened this season and seats 9,200. With Houston being a manageable five-hour drive on Interstate 10, officials expect a standing-room-only crowd that could push attendance close to 10,000 per game.
Rice (43-16), seeking its fourth-straight trip to Omaha, is 6-0 all-time against LSU in NCAA regional or super regional play. Mainieri, now in his third season in Baton Rouge, wasn't around for any of those Tigers loses.
Mainieri's experience against Rice was highlighted by LSU's come-from-behind victory over the Owls during last year's College World Series, when Blake Dean ended the game with a bases-clearing double in the bottom of the ninth.
If LSU (49-16), winner of the Southeastern Conference, wants to make a second straight trip to the College World Series, Mainieri figures it will require winning a close series loaded with tension and drama.
"I expect the games to be tight games. I think you have two teams very evenly matched," Mainieri began. "Rice represents excellence in college baseball. I don't think you could say there's a clear-cut favorite in this weekend's games. I think what you're going to have is two teams - really just heavyweights of college baseball - just going after each other all weekend."
Graham, a former major leaguer who's been in baseball long enough to have played for the Mets when Casey Stengel was manager, completely remade the image of Rice baseball, starting with the Engraved Old English lettering that he designed for the baseball uniforms when he first took over.
He said the dignified lettering only seemed appropriate for what he called an "academic school," where he says only about one in three college athletes have the grades to get in.
Now Rice is in its 15th-straight NCAA tournament, having won its first and only national championship in 2003. That was one of seven appearances in the College World Series under Graham, who is now 73 and says he'll keep coaching as long as he's effective.
The official - albeit it tongue-in-cheek - line at the Rice athletic department is that Graham "has a two-year extension on a lifetime contract."
Graham said this year's Rice squad is special because it overcame early season injuries to top two starting pitchers Mike Ojala and Ryan Berry. Ojala, who will need Tommy John surgery on his right elbow after the season, has had an extraordinary comeback despite pitching at less than 100 percent. He is 5-0 with a 1.73 earned-run average.
"It's been great. I'm starting to learn how to pitch," Ojala said. "I've had to develop a change up, I've had to find another way to get people out and just kind of trust my defense."
Ojala is slated to start the opener, with Berry (7-1, 2.00 ERA) to follow.
LSU will open with Anthony Ranaudo (9-3, 3.09 ERA), likely followed by Louis Coleman (12-2, 2.72 ERA) on Saturday. If necessary, Game 3 would be Sunday night.
Mainieri said he hasn't spent much time examining Rice's strengths and weakness and adjusting his strategy accordingly.
"It's a little arrogant, I guess. It can be perceived that way. But my experience through the years is when you concern yourself so much with your opponent you get out of playing the game the way you want to play it," Mainieri said. "I want our players to play to their strengths. I want them to do the things they've done all year. I don't feel like we have to adapt to what they do."
By contrast, the Rice coaching staff has spent a lot of time watching film on LSU.
"We've got more film on LSU than anyone we've ever played," Graham said. "That doesn't mean it will help. ... They've got talent. They definitely have a chance to go all the way, but I think we do, too."