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Jay Johnson made all the right moves to quickly build LSU into a national champion again

CWS Finals Baseball
Posted at 3:47 PM, Jun 28, 2023

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Jay Johnson was a West Coast guy and doing just fine coaching at Arizona when the opportunity to take over at LSU presented itself.

The Tigers were long established as college baseball bluebloods, and Johnson would have been lying if he said he weren't at least interested in taking a look at succeeding the retiring Paul Mainieri after the 2021 season.

Johnson said knowing he would have Dylan Crews on the roster for two years made the job irresistible.

With the Golden Spikes Award winner leading the way along with star transfers Paul Skenes and Tommy White, the Tigers made the 46-year-old Johnson the first baseball coach to win a national championship before his third year at a school.

LSU was the consensus No. 1 team in the nation from the preseason until May 8, and now the Tigers are back where they started after winning a three-game College World Series finals with an 18-4 win over Florida on Monday night for their seventh title and first since 2009.

The Tigers bounced back from a 24-4 loss in the second game of the finals, giving up the most runs ever in a CWS game.

"I really believe this will go down as one of the best teams in college baseball history," Johnson said. "So consistent in the regular season. I think the SEC Tournament is the only week of the year we had a losing record, if you think about that. Eleven wins in the postseason, six of them against SEC teams."

Johnson didn't mention LSU (54-17) won two of three CWS meetings with No. 1 national seed Wake Forest, the Atlantic Coast Conference team that had replaced the Tigers atop the polls seven weeks ago.

Crews had been the catalyst for the program since he opted out of the 2020 amateur draft to sign with LSU. Crews became a two-time SEC player of the year, and he or Skenes likely will be taken first in next month's draft.

The Golden Spikes Award and national title completed a season in which the center fielder batted .426, hit 17 homers, scored 100 runs and drove in 70.

"I feel all boxes are checked off now," he said.

Johnson's 2022 LSU team went 40-22, finished in the top four of the SEC for the first time since 2017 and lost in the NCAA regional finals at Southern Mississippi.

Coaching in the uber-competitive SEC was a major adjustment for Johnson, and his first run through the league laid the groundwork for elevating the program to a national championship level.

He hired pitching coach Wes Johnson away from the Minnesota Twins, landed the top players available in the transfer portal and signed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.

Skenes, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, came from Air Force, added 5 mph to his fastball and had what ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson one of the most dominant seasons ever by a college pitcher. Skenes set the SEC record for strikeouts in a season and was the first collegian in 12 years to fan more than 200.

White, who came from North Carolina State, hit 24 home runs and led the nation with 105 RBIs after taking over for first-round draft pick Jacob Berry at third base. White hit the 11th-inning walk-off home run against Wake Forest that put LSU in the finals.

Thatcher Hurd, who came from UCLA, was a weekend starter and middle reliever who matched his season high with six innings while earning the win in Monday's 18-4 win.

The freshman class yielded Gavin Guidry and Griffin Herring, both of whom played major roles out of the bullpen in Omaha.

Another of Johnson's key moves was convincing designated hitter Cade Beloso to return for a fifth year after missing last season with a knee injury.

"Had to beg him to come back — not beg him, but recruit him to come back and not move on with his life," Johnson said. "And then to have that tournament. We're not the national champions without him."

Beloso hit the go-ahead home run in a win over Wake Forest that staved off elimination, and he connected in the 11th inning to beat Florida in Game 1 of the finals. He also had a key homer in the super regional final against Kentucky. Beloso finished the season batting .324 with 16 homers.

"This program is so lucky to have coach Jay Johnson," Beloso said. "He's not stopping, I promise that."

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