By Trey Mongrue
It’s a moment that LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri admittedly still thinks about, nearly nine months later.
Up 4-0 on Houston and just six outs away from clinching the Baton Rouge regional, the Tigers found themselves on the wrong end of a 5-4 extra inning affair three innings later. The following day, the Cougars mercilessly ended LSU’s season with a 12-2 thumping – the first time the Tigers failed to advance out of a regional that they hosted since 2005.
While still fresh on the mind, don’t expect Mainieri to use it as any added motivation as his club gets set to open the 2015 season this weekend with Kansas. After all, this is LSU baseball, and any season that the Tigers aren’t in the College World Series is deemed a disappointment.
Mainieri has made note of that since the day he took the job. Nine years later, that maxim hasn’t changed one iota.
“You have no time to feel sorry for yourself,” said Mainieri, who has amassed a 315-33-2 record during his time at LSU – only a fraction of his 1179 wins as a collegiate coach.
Not wallowing in any self-pity from the missed opportunities of seasons passed, Mainieri has been his usual chipper self. Part of that is simply because baseball season is here once again, but also – and more importantly – because he feels that he has assembled a team of 33 players that can do some damage this season.
“I feel great about our team,” he said. “We have a lot of experience, but I am equally excited about the young freshmen. These kids have the chance to be really fine players. ”
The Tigers return seven position players that started for the bulk of Southeastern Conference play last season to go along with a pitcher-heavy recruiting class that is considered by many to be tops in the country.
That’s all fine and dandy for junior shortstop Alex Bregman, but in what will likely be his last season before heading over to the professional ranks, it’s time to put up or shut up.
“I’m just worried about winning baseball,” Bregman bluntly stated. “I’m only worried about what I can do to help the team win. It’s about improving in every facet of the game. I think that’s everyone’s goals.
“Now it’s time to go out there and compete.”
A Call for Arms
When LSU does take the field on Friday against the Jayhawks, the fans packing in Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field will notice an immediate difference.
It will be sophomore Jared Poché trotting out to the mound, not Aaron Nola making that jog.
“Losing Nola was a big blow,” said Mainieri.
It’s a bit of an understatement, considering that Nola headlined LSU’s weekend rotation for two seasons in which he made 33 appearances. The Tigers lost just two games in that span.
But despite the shadow engulfing the mound due to Nola’s absence, there is optimism that the Tigers will be just as strong – if not stronger – on the mound in 2015 because of who is returning and who is coming in.
A glimpse of that will be seen this weekend when freshmen Alex Lange and Jake Godfrey start on the hill for the Tigers on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
“I don’t think any one person is going to fill that void from Nola because he was a once and a lifetime talent,” said Lange, who recorded a team-best 10 strikeouts in 8.1 innings pitched during LSU’s spring scrimmages.
“It’s going to take a collective effort from the entire staff. I feel like we have the pitchers to do it.”
Even with Nola spearheading the rotation, LSU pitching still had its shortcoming, particularly in trying to find a consistent answer on Sunday, where Kyle Bouman, Alden Cartwright split time. Of LSU’s 16 losses, five came on the third game of a series.
Both Bouman and Cartwright are back, however they figure to be used more in middle relief this season with freshmen like Godfrey, Lange, Doug Norman and Jake Latz (who will miss the first few weeks due to elbow soreness) set to be groomed as rotational guys.
“We’re very poised and veteran-like,” explained Godfrey, a 6-foot-3 hard throwing right-hander from Illinois.
“Coming in, we know what we have to do. You have Lange who throws extremely hard, Latz has that curveball and Doug has his style. They add great pieces to this team.”
Of course, don’t forget about Poché either. After all, he had a solid freshman campaign in which he posted a 9-3 record and a 2.45 earned run average as a freshman. For comparison, Nola posted a 3.61 ERA in his freshman season.
All of the sudden, the sophomore from Lutcher is the veteran of the group, but it’s a role that he believes suits him.
“Coach told me that he wants me to be a leader and I’m going out there to try and lead by example,” Poché said. “With the guys we have, we’ve made strides from where we were when we first got together in the fall.
“If we can continue to do that throughout the season, the sky is the limit.”
Handling the Hot Corner
While the pitching cupboard is met with optimism, yet a veil of the unknown, LSU largely knows what kind of production they are going to get from the eight players that take the field around the mound.
The outfield is set with juniors Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson, along with sophomore Jake Fraley making it nearly impossible for fly balls to find a spot that their speed can’t cover.
Bregman rounds out an infield that includes second baseman Kramer Robertson, fresh off a summer stint in the Cape Cod League where he hit .277 and was named an All-Star, and senior Conner Hale who can be plugged pretty much anywhere in the infield.
Christian Ibarra is back, but as an assistant coach instead of the Tigers’ sure-handed third baseman, leaving a void that sophomore Danny Zardon hopes to fill.
“I don’t feel much pressure, I feel comfortable at third,” said Zardon who started a handful of games at first base last season for LSU but was a third baseman at American Heritage High School in Florida.
“I’m acclimated to the system and know what to look forward to.”
Mainieri expects Zardon to hold his own offensively, and the sophomore showed as much this spring with nine hits in the scrimmages. But if the job is to remain his, Zardon will have to be able to field his position.
If he doesn’t, then Mainieri may be forced to move Hale from first to third – a possession he played in junior college – or give freshman Greg Deichmann a look.
To make sure he holds onto the spot, Zardon is putting in extra work with Ibarra.
“Danny’s a power hitter and a good defensive player,” said Ibarra who will be the Tigers’ first base coach this season. “He’s got some Hispanic in him so he’s going to have a heck of a year.”
For the most part, the pieces seem to be in place for the Tigers to make a deep postseason run, or at the very least have the capabilities to.
For as heralded as the freshman pitchers may be, it is inevitable that most, if not all, of them will experience their fare share of growing pains. After all, Kevin Gausman posted a 3.51 ERA and a 5-6 record as a freshman before getting things together his sophomore season. Another big question is finding a closer out of the bullpen to replace Joe Broussard. Early candidates for that spot are sophomores Parker Bugg and Zach Person and redshirt-freshman Jesse Stallings, who had a solid showing in spring.
The good news though is that, with potent hitters like Bregman, Hale, Stevenson and other, LSU’s veteran offense should be able to alleviate some of the pressure. On talent alone, this team seems has a national seed feel to it, which is an inside track to the CWS, but that’s still a long ways away.