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Tennessee baseball in unexpected NCAA Tournament rematch vs LSU. Could it get 'hostile'? | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee got a glimpse of where this baseball season was headed in late March when the Vols opened their SEC home schedule against LSU. Fans began lining up for tickets more than an hour before the first pitch at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

Tickets were at a premium because of COVID-19 restrictions. Moreover, UT fans already had enough results to imagine how promising the season might be. Tennessee had won 18 of its first 22 games, was ranked ninth nationally and could enhance its newfound baseball status against the 14th-ranked Tigers.

The series couldn’t have gone better for the Vols. They won three consecutive close games, including two in extra innings, while providing a preview of what was to come. They displayed the right combination of defense, pitching and clutch hitting that eventually enabled them to win the SEC East and secure a No. 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

More:Tennessee baseball does not care about your feelings. These Vols don't mind being the villains.

ABOUT THE TIGERS:What to know about LSU, Tennessee baseball's super regional opponent

SUPER REGIONAL SCHEDULE:Complete list of games, start times and TV info

Tennessee is now 48-16 and two victories away from its first College World Series since 2005 as it prepares to host a super regional, beginning Saturday. But two months ago, who would have thought this high-stakes series would have featured a rematch against LSU?

The Tigers lost eight of their first nine SEC games. They lost their only game in the SEC Tournament. And longtime coach Paul Mainieri announced his retirement two weeks ago.

But his retirement is now on hold. If LSU keeps winning, Mainieri keeps coaching. If LSU upsets Tennessee this weekend, Mainieri could end his 39-year coaching career in the CWS.

The irony of this super regional is that the Vols are the higher seed.

LSU has been an elite baseball program for more than 30 years. Meanwhile, Tennessee baseball has had its ups and downs – mostly downs.

From 2008 through 2017, LSU played in the CWS five times. During the same stretch, Tennessee qualified for the SEC Tournament only three times.

Current events defy the history of the two programs. Tennessee is the higher seed for good reason. It’s a more experienced and balanced team that has distinguished itself with almost unfailing consistency.

Tennessee has a set lineup and a set pitching rotation. Its roles are well defined.

Contrast that with LSU, which scrambled from behind to win a regional in Eugene, Oregon. In the championship game, LSU used six pitchers.

The Vols have a deeper lineup, a more reliable pitching staff and a defense that’s not apt to sabotage its pitchers. Nonetheless, LSU has managed to overcome erratic pitching and a shaky defense to reach the super regional.

Something else to consider: The Tigers have become a better team than the one Tennessee swept more than two months ago. Their freshmen and sophomores – on whom they depend so heavily – are more experienced.

There’s also the Mainieri factor.

He didn’t want the NCAA Tournament to be a farewell tour. It’s not about him, he has said repeatedly. Yet his players keep saying it is about him.

Mainieri is the outgoing coach and Tennessee’s Tony Vitello is the up-and-coming coach, whose rebuilding job at Tennessee has made him a hot commodity for any program with a coaching vacancy. He’s likely on LSU’s list, though the Tigers probably would prefer someone with a national championship on their resume.

But Mainieri and Vitello – at vastly different stages of their careers – have something in common. Their players genuinely like them.

You can see UT players’ affection for Vitello when he races to join them in a postgame celebration.

Mainieri can’t risk that. Despite two surgeries, he still suffers neck pain, which was a factor in his retirement.

In announcing his retirement, Mainieri announced all the things he would miss. He added: “Some things I won’t miss. I’m not gonna miss getting ‘walked off’ at Tennessee, I can tell you that.’ ”

Mainieri was troubled by more than two walk-off losses to the Vols. After the series in a radio interview, he complained about the “hostile environment" at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and how “nasty” Tennessee fans were.

He apparently said that with a straight face, which makes me wonder if he were so focused on coaching that he never noticed what was going on with his own crowd. Tigers fans are legendary for creating hostile environments in all sports.

You can count on LSU fans having a presence at this super regional. They travel well and are resourceful at procuring tickets. And if UT fans with tickets in hand are looking to a make a profit this weekend, they won’t lack buyers.

But don’t expect many deals to be struck between fans. For a Tennessee fan base so long removed from a national stage, this ticket – and this weekend – could be priceless.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.