LSU’s emergence as a college baseball power was one of the catalysts for the SEC’s emergence as the premier conference in the sport.

Coach Skip Bertman’s teams won 5 College World Series championships between 1991 and 2000 as he established the Tigers as the program of the decade.

But Bertman retired as coach after the 2001 season and LSU has won just 1 national championship since then, though it has remained one of the better programs in the country.

The Tigers won the 2009 CWS and reached the 2017 championship round before losing to Florida.

But that’s 1 title in 22 seasons and LSU is now on its third coach since Bertman retired as Jay Johnson begins Year 2.

Now the Tigers are back.

They are a consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country and excitement surrounding the program is as high as it has been in the post-Bertman era as LSU prepares for Friday’s Opening Day.

“We all know what LSU baseball’s ceiling is,” Johnson said amid an unusually large swarm of reporters at Media Day.

Johnson added that Bertman and some former players met with him and his staff recently and shared old “war stories.”

This year’s team features junior center fielder Dylan Crews, who’s projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft, slugging third baseman Tommy “Tanks” White, a transfer who was the Freshman of the Year last season at NC State, as well as a stacked roster.

In addition to Crews, LSU returns another 10 position players with starting experience and 9 veteran pitchers from last season. The roster also includes a highly-touted freshman class that includes infielder Gavin Guidry, outfielders Paxton Kling, Mic Paul and Zeb Ruddell, and catchers Brady Neal, Jared Jones and Ethan Frey.

“If I tried to undersell this team’s expectations,” Johnson said, “That would be dumb.”

The expectation is LSU will be in Omaha for the College World Series and leaving there without the long-awaited 7th national championship would be a disappointment.

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“Offensively,” Johnson said, “we have more guys this year that are balanced in terms of speed, power, hitting skills and defensive aptitude.”

The Tigers (40-22) had the 2nd-most productive offense in the SEC last season, scoring 503 runs, but their pitching and defense weren’t as good. They were 6th in the SEC in team ERA (4.32) and were last in the league in fielding percentage (.962). That’s one reason they were bounced early in the SEC Tournament and in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We gave 2022 everything we had,” Johnson said. “I’m extremely proud of that team. It was the first time we were in the top 4 of the SEC in a long time (2017). It was about a lot more than results last year— we built a foundation.”

Johnson praised new pitching coach Wes Johnson by saying, “He is one of the preeminent pitching coaches in the nation at any level.”

Wes Johnson was in the middle of his 4th season as the pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins when Jay Johnson hired him last summer.

The pitching coach has experience at the college level with Arkansas, Mississippi State, Dallas Baptist, Central Arkansas and Southern Arkansas.

When Jay Johnson was asked if his Friday night starter will be Paul Skenes, a transfer who excelled as a pitcher and designated hitter at Air Force, he replied, “1000 percent yes.”

“He’s an outlier,” Johnson continued. “He’s a leader on this team right now. He’s the real deal.”

The head coach named UCLA transfer Thatchur Hurd as a candidate to join Skenes in the rotation. Others in the mix include right-handers Christian Little (Vanderbilt) and Nate Ackenhausen (JUCO).

“We wanted to get pitchers who could pitch deeper into games,” Jay Johnson said.

The Tigers return several experienced arms in right-handers Ty Floyd, Blake Money, Bryce Collins, Will Hellmers, Garrett Edwards, Grant Taylor and Sam Dutton as well as left-hander Riley Cooper.

Freshmen such as left-handers Griffin Herring, Nic Bronzini and DJ Primeaux as well as right-handers Chase Shores, Aiden Moffett and Micah Bucknam will compete for innings.

Jay Johnson added that he was happy with the bullpen last season and that he expects it to be even more effective again this season, though he wasn’t ready to name a closer.

“I look at where we want to be,” Jay Johnson said. “If you don’t have elite starting pitching you’re going to reach a ceiling. (In 2022) we reached the ceiling.”

He added that there is “a lot to sort out” in position battles, though some things are already clear.

“Dylan Crews is going to play,” Johnson said. “That’s not hard to figure out.”

Johnson added that Jordan Thompson, who is healthy after having been sidelined by a knee injury, is “clearly the shortstop.”

But after Crews, White and Thompson things get less clear.

“One of our foundational pieces is competing,” Johnson said, adding that it’s
“essential” that the players be selfless because there is so much quality competition.

He mentioned 4 players who could contribute at second base: Guidry, Ben Nippolt (a transfer from Virginia Commonwealth), Jack Merrifield and Gavin Dugas, who has been limited by a November eye surgery but could be full-go next week.

Catcher is another position featuring multiple candidates – Alex Milazzo and Brady Neal.

“They are ready to go from a defensive standpoint,” Johnson said. “Production means a lot more than just batting average, to me, at that position, especially in the context of this team.”

The roster is dotted with other proven veterans such as junior first baseman/preseason All-American Tre’ Morgan, junior outfielder/DH Brayden Jobert, sophomore outfielder Josh Pearson, senior first baseman/DH Cade Beloso and sophomore outfielder Josh Stevenson.

The Tigers open the season with a 3-game home series against Western Michigan beginning Feb. 17. They open SEC play exactly 4 weeks later with a 4-game series at Texas A&M.

“Any type of game,” Johnson said, “slugfest or 1-run game; any type of ballpark, big or small, wind blowing in or out; we have to have a team with the skill set to match that.”

It appears he will as the Tigers try to climb back on top of college baseball.