OPINION: Despite fan anger, LSU’s Mainieri deserves to keep job

You would think Paul Mainieri was a gubernatorial candidate.

Not since the House of Representatives leadership bitterly feuded with the governor over the state’s budget during special session after special session has a Baton Rouge-based leader had this many calls to be removed from his post — and with this much veracity.

This speaks volumes about the salty culture of politics in our state, but also just how important the state of the LSU baseball program is here in the land of year-round crawfish obsession where words have EAUX inexplicably added to them for no good reason.

For example, “Mainieri needs to geaux!”

Mainieri of course is receiving arrows and stones for the late-season struggles of his baseball team — a squad that began the season ranked No. 1 and with aspirations of reaching Omaha for the College World Series.

The concern began with midweek defeats to the likes of Northwestern State, McNeese State (which prompted a players’ meeting afterward), and then a loss to Southern University. LSU is a mere 5-5 against in-state competition.

The Tigers temporarily managed to quiet concerns by notching impressive series wins against Top 10-ranked Southeastern Conference teams Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Florida. 

But then came the past week.

Ole Miss came to town last weekend and took two of three in Baton Rouge for the first time since 1982 (including a gut-punch 19-15 loss Sunday), followed by Louisiana Tech ending its 32-year losing streak to LSU on Tuesday with a 12-1 rout at Alex Box Stadium. That promoted another players’ meeting, this time during the game in the tunnel. Then came Thursday night’s 14-4 loss at SEC West leader Arkansas.

The 45 runs given up in the past three games is the most by LSU since coughing up 50 back in 1997.

Now, the screams of Mainieri to be fired are starting to become deafening.

That’s right, the Bayou Bengal faithful want to fire the man who in the past 12 seasons has guided the Tigers to five CWS trips, one national title and one national runner-up finish. It was a mere two years ago that LSU won 52 games and finished as national runner-up.

Yes, last year’s 39-win team who had a .500 record in SEC play and was eliminated in the Corvallis Regional was disappointing. If you combine that with this year’s underachieving season, and the fact that the program hasn’t won a title in a decade, one could see why LSU fans are saying that Mainieri has worn out his welcome and that the program is regressing akin to what happened with the football team under Les Miles.

There are certain parallels between the two coaches. 

Both won national championships at LSU in their third year in Baton Rouge (2007 for Miles, 2009 for Mainieri), lost national titles to SEC rivals (2011 to Alabama for Miles, 2017 to Florida for Mainieri), and both have had other Power 5 powerhouses try to lure them away (Michigan for Miles, Texas for Mainieri).

And both began to draw the ire of the always-complaining LSU fan base.

But Miles didn’t deal with the rash of injuries that Mainieri has this season.

The pitching staff has been besieged with injuries — most notably arm soreness that has kept many a starter out of the rotation. This includes the team’s most consistent arm, Cole Henry (4-2 and 3.26 ERA), who is now missing his third straight weekend series to the mysterious ailment. 

The team ERA is nearly five runs a game.

Walker has yet to look like his old self from 2017 (surgery) as he enters Friday’s game with an ERA of 5.30, former Friday night ace Zack Hess is now in the bullpen, while freshman Landon Marceaux has a bloated 7.04 ERA.

The lineup, which features multiple MLB prospects, has dealt with injuries to Zach Watson and Daniel Cabrera, as well. The biggest issue is consistency as the lineup has been held to three runs or less 14 times.

Even with all those struggles, LSU could easily turn things around.

The in-state woes, for example, are nothing new, as LSU went a mediocre 6-5 against in-state schools back in 2017, including losing to UNO twice, and went on to reach the national title game. Not to mention LSU lost once to NAIA member Louisiana College back in 1997 and won the national title that same year — the same year they had that three-game stretch of giving up 50 runs.

Is Mainieri living up to the standard set forth by Skip Bertman?

Well, no. In his 18 years at the helm, Bertman made the NCAA postseason 11 times and won five College World Series. Those are feats that no one can live up to — at LSU or anywhere else.

Expecting that kind of dominance these days in unrealistic. In the past two decades, universities have invested far more resources into building baseball programs and combined with the era of “Gorilla Ball” of the 1990s having gone extinct with changes to bats, parity has dominated the game.

Since 2000, 14 different programs have won the national title.

Does it appear that Mainieri should shake up his staff? Maybe.

The pitching has been average the past two seasons, and the fact that the Tigers didn’t sign a single lefty last year is perplexing. Longtime associate head coach-pitching coach Alan Dunn is well respected but something is off with the Tigers’ arms — and that is when they are healthy enough to throw.

The lineup has dipped as well under Sean Ochinko, who took over as hitting coach for Micah Gibbs after the 2017 season when the Tigers hit .289 with 69 home runs. In the two seasons since then, LSU hit .283 with 48 HR in 2018 and currently is .272 with 49 HR this season.

All that said, even if LSU is swept by Arkansas and stumbles into the SEC Tournament in Hoover, an event which they traditionally play very well in, the Tigers are in no danger of missing the postseason. 

Yes, LSU may not host a regional, but they will still play in one, and with all the injuries that might be a win. Let’s not forget either that Mainieri lost his father Demie during the season — a man who taught him the game, coached him, was best man at his wedding and his best friend.

I don’t care how professional one is, or how hard they try to brush aside heartache, speaking from experience, the loss of parent is something that lingers for weeks — if not months afterwards.

Not reaching the lofty expectations of a fan base comes with the job, but desire to vote Manieri out of office is just childish and shortsighted. The man has earned the right to prove to the fans, the university and to his program that these struggles of the past year and half is just a blip and not a trend.

Time for LSU fans to save that enthusiastic disdain for the fall election season.