By James Bewers
The “it factor.”
Ask any sports fanatic the definition of the “it factor,” and the answers will vary. For any given team, it’s the difference between good and great—the intangibles that lead to championships. In essence, the “it factor” contains several factors that make up one.
“We’ve had a lot of teams at LSU that have been capable of winning the national championship. When you get to the end, everything has got to kind of go your way.”
– LSU coach Paul Mainieri
– LSU coach Paul Mainieri
It remains to be seen whether the 2015 LSU baseball team truly has the mythical characteristic to hoist a College World Series trophy in Omaha, this June. But as LSU heads to Hoover, Ala., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the No. 1 Tigers (46-9, 21-8 SEC) possess or have accrued several tangible necessities for a deep run in the postseason.
While LSU coach Paul Mainieri will say no two teams are entirely the same, the track LSU has set for itself is in line with a few of his previous clubs.
“We’ve had a lot of teams at LSU that have been capable of winning the national championship,” Mainieri said last week. When you get to the end, everything has to go your way.
There are nine position players on LSU’s roster that have started 30 or more games this season. Eight of those players could be gone next season.
With the exception of regular starting left fielder sophomore Jake Fraley, the Tigers will have to replace four graduating seniors and possibly four draft-eligible juniors from its most-used lineup.
The experience in years is also coupled with experience at the highest level. Six of the eight players were on the 2013 team that appeared in the College World Series, including three players—junior shortstop Alex Bregman, center fielder Andrew Stevenson, and right fielder Mark Laird—who started more than 30 games that season.
Similarly, the record-setting 2013 team had veteran leadership, which was something junior first baseman Chris Chinea, who was freshman on that squad, found crucial to the Tigers’ success that season.
“We had great leaders on that team—Mason Katz, Raph Rhymes, Jacoby Jones, Ty Ross,” Chinea said. “On the pitching staff, we had [Aaron] Nola, Ryan Eades, Chris [Cotton]. We had a great group of guys, and we clicked all year that year. We went to Omaha and didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal. But we reached the final stage of college baseball, and that was a great season.”
While an 0-2 outing in Omaha may have put a sour note on a season that tied the most wins in LSU history, no player on the 2013 team had previously appeared in the College World Series, a clear advantage for this year’s Tigers.
With a team batting average of .322, the 2015 Tigers currently hold the highest batting average of any LSU team under Mainieri.
LSU hitters have seen a more than 30-point bump in average from last season thanks in part to the hiring of first-year hitting coach Andy Cannizaro and the altered baseballs introduced into the college game.
This year’s Tiger squad is one shy of the home run amount and two shy of the doubles total collected by LSU’s 2013 team. Furthermore, LSU has already eclipsed the number of triples and stolen bases—a category that is the highest since 2009 and ranks in the top 10 in the nation—from the team two years ago.
LSU’s 12 hits per game clip are the most by any team in the Mainieri era, and the club recorded the most hits in a regular season by a Tiger team since 2004.
“Offensively, there’s no question that were a better team [than in 2013],” Bregman said. “That team made it to Omaha, and we haven’t yet. We have a lot to accomplish, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Pitching and Defense
The youthful Tiger pitching staff had large shoes to fill to begin the season, replacing Nola, a 2014 first round draft pick.
On top of the inexperience on the mound, the Tigers lost it’s top pitching recruit, Mac Marshall, who transferred to a junior college in fall to make himself eligible for 2015 draft, and have been without freshman Jake Latz, who has battled injury all season.
Despite the uphill climb, the Tigers found their future on the mound in the form of freshman Alex Lange, who is 10-0 on the year. The Tigers also established the league leading team earned run average, accomplished in part by a team fielding percentage ranked top-20 nationally.
Much like last season, questions surrounded whom LSU would tout as its third starter for a large portion of the season. But after one his best starts of the season in LSU’s 9-2 win against South Carolina last Friday, freshman Austin Bain (2-2) looks poised to command the role heading into the postseason.
Including last Thursday’s 10-7 game one loss to the Gamecocks, the Tigers have also struggled to find steadiness from their bullpen late in games and have yet to solidify a closer. The bullpen has blown saves eight different times this season and the Tigers are 5-4 in extra inning games this season.
Mainieri acknowledged the third starter and a consistent closer were elusive positions to fill for even his 2009 National Championship team.
“That team lost 17 games that year,” Mainieri said. “We were still jockeying around with the lineup 40 games into the season. Our third starter that year, Austin Ross, and he will be mad me when I say this, but he was 6-7 that year. Matty Ott didn’t become our closer until a good portion of the season [had been completed]. There are always question marks on every team. To think you have a perfect team is wishful thinking.”
Mainieri maintains his team can overcome any shortcomings they possess.
“You dwell on the things that you can do positive, and you’re constantly working to hide the limitations that you may have or work around those limitations—not ask players to do more than what they are capable of doing. Somebody always seems to rise to the occasion. The good teams always find away to get it done.”