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May 6, 2008

SCS.comWe should've known it wouldn't take all that long, but look who's making big noise again?

Paul Mainieri's LSU Tigers have jumped to the top of the SEC West with only two weeks remaining by sweeping their last two conference series, and have their eyes set on a return to the postseason after being absent in 2006 and 2007.

The Tigers (32-16-1, 12-11-1 SEC) are a half-game up on Mississippi (31-19, 12-12) and Alabama (28-22, 12-12), and if they can close the deal in the final two weekends against Mississippi State and Auburn, they should have their first SEC West title since 2005, which was also the last time they were in the postseason.

Only a few weeks ago, the outlook wasn't so rosy for the Tigers, as they stood at 23-16-1 overall and 6-11-1 in the SEC after a series loss to Georgia, in which they only averted a sweep because of a 10-10 tie on Sunday.

That tie might have been what spurred the turnaround, as LSU blew a 10-3 lead in that game, but thanks to the SEC travel curfew rule, the game was halted after 12 innings.

Their second-year coach must have lit a fire under them after that weekend, as since then, they haven't lost, sweeping two of the SEC's better teams in the process, taking out the brooms against South Carolina at home, and then doing the deed against Kentucky on the road. All the while, Mississippi has lost their last three conference series, and have seen the Tigers fly by, and the Crimson Tide catch up.

So, is the LSU of old back? If you mean the winning LSU, then yes. If you mean the long-ball bashing LSU, not quite, though they have a pretty respectable 61 homers on the season, 17 of which have come off the bat of Matt Clark, and 10 from Blake Dean, who are LSU's leading power and run producers.

While Clark might be the closest link to the dominant, gorilla-ball days of the 90s, from Walker to Furniss and Larson to Cresse, when LSU had dangerous hitters from top to bottom, this LSU team has plenty of winning ingredients.

There's solid, if not spectacular, plate production (.294 team average, 61 homers, nearly seven runs per game), speed on the basepaths (70 steals in 87 attempts, 22 triples), solid pitching (3.88 ERA), and good fielding (.971 fielding %).

This balance is pretty evident during their hot streak, where they've hit well (nearly eight runs per game on offense, and only two games in the streak where the opposition has scored more than five runs). The latter number is pretty impressive given that South Carolina and Kentucky are anything but light-hitting teams, and when LSU did get into slugfests with both, they came out on top (11-10 comeback win over USC, 9-8 comeback win over Kentucky).

The timing couldn't be better for an LSU resurgence, not only because seeing them out of the postseason for even just a couple of seasons is an oddity, but also because the Tigers are set to move into a new Alex Box Stadium in 2009, and as nice as it is to have a brand new stadium, you want to give the fans a reason to come to the brand new stadium.

But, they may well have a chance to extend their run in the old Alex Box into the end of May. If they keep on winning, and can fare well in the SEC tournament, they'll not only seal a place in the postseason, but might get to host one of the 16 sub-regionals.

There's still plenty of work to be done yet, but you knew it was only a matter of time before Mainieri had the program on the right track again.

The ultimate goal, of course, is a return to Omaha, where they haven't been since 2004, and being a serious contender for a national championship, the last of which came in 2000, to wrap up their run of five national titles in a decade. But, Mainieri has already put his own stamp on the program in a very short time, cutting a lot of fat since he was hired in the summer of 2006, but at the same time, bringing in a wealth of talent, and it's starting to pay off.

They may not be the Tigers of the 90s, but all of a sudden, there is something pretty familiar about this team, and it's in the 'W' column.

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