(Part 5 of a College World Series preview series)
Winners of 16 straight and 21 of its last 23, LSU goes into Omaha full speed ahead. Making their 18th College World Series appearance, the Tigers (48-17) face Florida State (45-21) Saturday at 7 p.m. at TD Ameritrade Park.
While No. 1 national seed Oregon State appears to be the trendy pick among the national media, Mississippi State coach Andy Cannizaro expects the Tigers to win their seventh national championship and their first since 2009.
"The train is rolling," said Cannizaro, LSU's recruiting coordinator and hitting coach from 2014-16. "I anticipate those guys are going to Omaha and win a national championship. They have the most dynamic lineup in the country. Everyone is playing at a high level right now."
Cannizaro's Bulldogs were winless in five tries against the Tigers this season after being swept 4-3 and 14-4 in last week's Super Regional at Alex Box Stadium.
Offensively, coach Paul Mainieri's Tigers rank second in the CWS field with a .294 team batting average and third with 61 home runs.
LSU is led at the plate by junior right fielder Greg Deichmann. A first-team All-American, the New Orleans Brother Martin product was chosen in the second round (43rd overall) of the Major League draft by the Oakland A's earlier this week. Batting cleanup, Deichmann leads the team with a .606 slugging percentage, 146 total bases, 19 home runs, 72 RBI and 48 walks. He has also contributed a .320 batting average, 12 doubles and 51 runs.
Shortstop Kramer Robertson and second baseman Cole Freeman, who have been fixtures at the top of the order, were both taken in the fourth round on Tuesday. Robertson went to the St. Louis Cardinals as the No. 124 overall selection, with the Washington Nationals calling out Freeman nine picks later. Both raised their draft stock significantly after remaining in school for their senior season. Freeman was drafted in the 18th round a year ago, while Robertson was a 32nd round selection.
Robertson leads the nation with 83 runs scored, while producing team-highs in hits (83) and doubles (18) from the leadoff spot. His season line also features a .319 batting average, a .421 on base percentage, a .504 slugging percentage, eight home runs, three triples and 43 RBI.
Freeman has accounted for team highs in on base percentage (.431), hit by pitches (21) and sacrifice hits (15) and is tied for the club lead with 18 stolen bases. The Mandeville Lakeshore and Delgado Community College product has also supplied a .327 batting average, two home runs, two triples, 13 doubles, 41 RBI, 80 hits and 50 runs.
Penciled in at the No. 3 spot behind Kramer and Freeman, sophomore left fielder Antoine Duplantis is batting .322 with one home run, two triples, 14 doubles, 57 RBI, 18 stolen bases and 46 runs.
Junior catcher Michael Papierski and freshman third baseman Josh Smith are both swinging hot bats in NCAA Tournament play.
Taken by the Houston Astros in the ninth round on Tuesday, Papierski is slashing .260/.414/.455 with eight home runs and 34 RBI. In five tournament games, he is batting .400 with a home run, eight RBI and six runs. Papierski's sacrifice fly plated the decisive run as the Tigers rallied for a four-spot in the bottom of the eighth to nip Mississippi State in Game 1 of the Super Regional.
One of a trio of Tigers to earn freshman All-America honors, Smith is hitting .289 for the season, with four homers, 15 doubles and 43 RBI. His .689 on base percentage during NCAA Tournament play is tops in the nation. Over the five-game postseason stretch, Smith is 6-for-13 while drawing eight walks and being hit by a pitch on two occasions.
Another freshman All-American, West Ouachita product Zach Watson is slashing .313/.370/.508 with eight home runs, three triples, eight doubles, 35 RBI and 10 steals in 13 attempts. Watson doubled his home run total by clouting four in the Regional round.
Northeast Louisiana is also represented in the starting nine by former Ouachita Christian stalwart Jack Slaughter. The freshman is batting .256 with a .354 on base clip, two home runs, 23 RBI and 51 runs scored while sharing time at first base with junior Nick Coomes (.294, 2 HR, 24 RBI).
Beau Jordan is the designated hitter. A junior out of Lake Charles Barbe, Jordan has generated a .277 batting average with three home runs, six doubles and 25 ribbies.
Junior right-hander Alex Lange is firmly entrenched atop the Tigers' pitching staff, which has compiled a 3.54 team ERA. A first-round draft choice (30th overall) by the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, Lange (9-5, 2.92) has registered 134 punchouts and just 40 walks in 111 innings. His career record at LSU stands at 29-9.
Senior right-hander Jared Poché (10-3, 3.42) became the second LSU player to be taken by the A's in the 2017 draft on Tuesday. A ninth-round selection, Poché has logged 97.1 innings while striking out 67 and walking 36. Sporting a 37-12 career record, the former Lutcher star ranks No. 2 on LSU's all-time win list behind Scott Schultz, who won 38 games from 1992-95. Poché and Lane Mestepey (2001-05) are tied for No. 1 on LSU's all-time list with 68 career starts.
Freshman All-American Eric Walker (8-1, 3.46) rounds out the starting rotation.
One of the keys to the Tigers' recent surge has been the bullpen. In the Super Regional, the relief corps accounted for both wins while allowing only four hits through seven scoreless innings.
Zack Hess (7-1, 2.85) was the winner in the Tigers' Game 1 comeback. A freshman right-hander, Hess has held opposing batters to a .182 average while striking out 72 against 24 walks in 53 innings of work.
Sophomore righty Caleb Gilbert (6-1, 2.42, 3 saves) threw 5.2 innings of two-hit relief to earn the win in Game 2 vs. Mississippi State.
Closer Hunter Newman (1-1, 1.07, 10 saves), a senior righty has conceded just three runs in 24 appearances.
Among the Tigers' other options out of the 'pen are freshman righty Todd Peterson (3-1, 3.74), freshman lefty Nick Bush (1-1, 3.54), and Matthew Beck (1-0, 3.04), a freshman righty out of Alexandria Senior High.