Moments after the LSU baseball team was eliminated from the 2013 College World Series, a teary-eyed Paul Mainieri sat in front of a microphone at his press conference and pleaded that everyone willing to listen not downplay what the Tigers accomplished that season, despite the winless showing in Omaha.
At the time, it was a reasonable thing to ask – considering that LSU turned in an unprecedented Southeastern Conference record of 23-7, won the conference tournament and went undefeated in both Regional and Super Regional play to make the CWS field.
But in the same vein, LSU baseball has and always will be judged on national championships and Mainieri is the first one to admit that, as the Tigers have their eyes set on a seventh title in 2014.
“Our goal every year is to roll out of bed and expect to go to Omaha and play for a national championship,” said Mainieri, who has his team geared up for Friday’s 7 p.m. season opener against New Orleans. “That’s what you come to LSU for, it’s why I came to LSU.”
Having been a part of contenders and title-winning teams in the past, Mainieri is as good a judge as anybody when it comes to knowing whether a team is capable of making a run in Omaha.
And with 56 games to go in just the regular season, he is quite optimistic.
“I feel like we have a team that is going to be able to make a run again,” he said. “I think everybody is right on target and ready to go.”
Called to Lead
While LSU’s quick exit from the 2013 CWS spelled the end of collegiate careers for many notable players, no one may have taken the winless showing harder than shortstop Alex Bregman.
As a freshman phenom in 2013, Bregman’s high-average and clutch hitting played a big part in what got the Tigers to Omaha. For Bregman, however, a hitless two-game outing at the plate and a costly error in LSU’s first loss to UCLA was not something anyone had envisioned. And for many players, a performance like that on the game’s biggest stage could destroy their confidence. But for Bregman, it just provided motivation him to work harder to become an even better player.
“Right after we lost that game, I was ready to get back on the mission to win a national championship,” said Bregman. “I think this year, it’s a business trip – everything we do is about taking care of business and I think that’s the mentality everyone needs to take.”
Bregman enters the 2014 campaign as one of the unquestioned leaders of this team.
That became clear when Mason Katz passed down the #8 jersey to him, just like former Tiger-great Mikie Mahtook did for Katz before the 2012 season, to start the tradition.
“It’s an honor to play with the number eight on your chest. It’s like the captain’s jersey,” said Bregman, “Especially after what Mikie and Mason did. Those guys were great on and off the field and that’s what I’m going to try and do this year.”
Although the new number makes it official this season, Bregman’s play and intensity made him a leader last season, despite being just a freshman. He proved his worth as a five-tool player by finishing second on the team in batting average (.369) and home runs (6) while leading the Tigers with 18 doubles, seven triples and 16 stolen bases.
“I kind of led in a different way last year,” he said. “I wasn’t leading vocally. This year I need to take more of a vocal leadership.”
To be that vocal leader, Bregman will not let anybody on the team forget the goal this season is not just to make a return trip to the College World Series, but to win it all this time around.
Finding positives in even his lowest moments on a baseball field, Bregman believes that LSU simply making it to Omaha last season bodes well for the Tigers going forward.
“It’s big that we have experience this year and we are going to come in knowing what it takes to get there,” he explained. “Everyone is hungry on this team and we want to get the best out of each other to go as far as we can possibly go.”
Replacing the Irreplaceable
Even though Bregman returns, it will be hard not to notice the absence of past key players when the Tigers take the field for the first time in 2014.
Graduation and the Major League Baseball draft removed Katz, second baseman JaCoby Jones, leftfielder Raph Rhymes and catcher Ty Ross from the everyday starting lineup. In 2013 alone, those four players accounted for 29 home runs and 179 runs batted in.
The pitching staff got picked apart as well, with Ryan Eades leaving a hole in the starting rotation while key bullpen guys such as Joey Bourgeois, Will LaMarche, Brent Bonvillian, Nick Rumbelow and Chris Cotton are also gone.
Even with the attrition, Mainieri knows there is not a viable excuse for not winning games, and he doesn’t expect to use it as one.
“There are a lot of big shoes to fill,” said Mainieri. “But around here, people don’t want to hear excuses, they just want to see you reload and be ready to go. Fortunately for us, we’ve got a good foundation of players returning and I like some of our new players.”
Starting behind the plate, Mainieri will give the first chance to junior Tyler Moore who, in the past, has been a clutch pinch hitter from the left side but had never been able to solidify a starting job in his first two seasons.
If Moore underperforms behind the plate, sophomore Chris Chinea and junior-college transfer Kade Scivique will be right there waiting.
“All three of them swing the bat very well,” Mainieri said of the position battle. “The thought is that whoever is not catching will get time at first base.”
In addition to having big offensive expectations for those three, Mainieri expects to see a big jump in performance from junior outfielder Jared Foster.
“Jared has become a real presence on our team,” said Mainieri of the former walk-on quarterback. “He’s been very inconsistent in the past, but when he is good, he is really good. And his confidence is growing.”
The tools are there for Foster. Despite his problems against right-handed pitching, he hit .359 in his 64 at bats last season and by far has the best arm in the outfield, as shown by the laser he fired from right field to get a tagging runner in the SEC Championship Game against Vanderbilt.
As for the pitching staff, Mainieri announced that freshman Jared Poche and junior college transfer Kyle Bouman will follow Aaron Nola in the weekend rotation to start the season, with sophomore Cody Glenn scheduled for the first midweek game.
Mainieri is particularly excited with what he has in Poche.
“If this kid could just pick up two or three miles per hour on his fastball, then we could be talking about someone really special,” Mainieri said of the 6-foot-1 left-hander from Lutcher. “He’s got all of the other attributes. Quite frankly, I think he is going to still be in the weekend rotation by the time SEC play starts.”
The bullpen is another story. In addition to needing seniors Kurt McCune and Nate Fury to take on bigger relief roles, Mainieri is wary of new closer Brady Domangue – a transfer from LSU-Eunice – after he had his ups and downs in January practices.
Of course, it was always going to be tough to follow Cotton and his 16 saves last season, but Mainieri knows just how important having a dominant closer is.
“Closer is my biggest concern,” said Mainieri, who is also looking at McCune and Joe Broussard for the spot. “I just know in this league that if you can’t finish games, then you can’t win. It’s that simple.”
Getting Work Dunn
Despite losing many key pitchers, Mainieri kept what is arguably the most important cog in the wheel – pitching coach Alan Dunn.
After spending time as a coach in the Baltimore Orioles organization, Dunn came to the Tigers for the 2012 season and produced immediate results. In the two seasons that Dunn has been in Baton Rouge, LSU’s team earned run average has gone down considerably each season.
Dunn also helped Kevin Gausman turn raw talent into the SEC Pitcher of the Year and a polished first round draft pick. Dunn is on pace to do the same thing with Nola this season.
“Those guys have been able to know who they are as pitchers and not try to do too much,” Dunn said of Gausman and Nola. “I’ll go to battle with guys like that every day because I know that they are not leaving anything out there.”
However, Dunn will always deflect any credit for rebuilding and retooling the LSU pitching staff.
“When you have success as a pitching coach, it’s all attributed to those that get out on the mound,” said Dunn. “You have to have quality kids that will buy into the program. That’s where it starts.”
This season may be Dunn’s toughest job yet, as LSU brought in 11 new pitchers – seven of them freshmen – to mold into high-caliber arms helping the Tigers win important games down the road.
With many spots up for grabs, Dunn has set an intense atmosphere for the pitchers throughout the Fall and Winter practices.
“There is a lot of opportunities for guys to get work and for us to evaluate, like we do every day,” he said. “I like our depth with our pitching, because I’ve never been on a staff where I said, ‘Man, we’ve got too many pitchers’.
“Bottom line: the players tell you where they are going to play because of how they go out and perform.”
Three Can’t-Miss Series
As much as the preseason narrative has been about the Tiger avenging last year’s CWS showing, there is no guarantee they will make it far enough to have that chance. After all, the Tigers play in the sport’s toughest conference.
“I call the SEC the big leagues of college baseball,” explained Mainieri. “The worst teams in the major leagues still have major league ballplayers on them, and that’s how the SEC is.”
Purdue (March 7-9)
LSU opens the season with a mostly modest out-of-conference schedule. That becomes apparent when a cold weather Big Ten team is considered to be the toughest weekend series on the slate. To Mainieri’s credit, he scheduled this series back in 2012 when the Boilermakers spent a lot of time ranked in the top ten and even hosted a regional. Unfortunately, that was a senior-laden team and in the following year, Purdue bottomed out. They expect to be much better this season and could present LSU a test. That’s good, as it’s the last weekend before the start of SEC play.
At Vanderbilt (March 14-16)
The Tigers could not have asked for a tougher open to conference play than taking on the defending SEC regular season champions. On top of that, the trip to Nashville will be the first time that the Tigers leave the state of Louisiana for a game. Last season these two clubs gave the college baseball world quite a treat with a thrilling SEC Tournament Championship Game, but they both played that game with depleted pitching staffs. It should not get much better than the Friday night matchup that will likely pit a couple of first round draft picks against each other: Nola vs. Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede.
Mississippi State (April 4-6)
This series could show the residue of bad blood, since Mississippi State threw at Katz’ head last season and Mainieri did not hide his disappointment afterwards. In addition, this series falls on the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, which means an SEC title could be on the line for both teams.
Whether it has been by Mainieri, Dunn or Bregman, there has been one common theme in what each has said in the lead-up to this season: Omaha.
Yes, a prestigious program like LSU is expected to contend for national championships every season, but the vibe given off by this team is that they are out to prove not only can they just get to Omaha, but contend once there.
A lot of key pieces from last season’s team have moved on, but, as Mainieri points out, college coaches have to deal with that every year. What is more important is that LSU still has a couple of elite players in Nola and Bregman. With those two as a centerpiece, 2014 can only mean good things for LSU.