Counting on Youth

LSU coach Paul Mainieri is relying on a handful of freshmen as the Tigers push through the season's final stretch.

Baton Rouge --- The transition from senior in high school to college freshman presents a slew of adjustments.

And that’s for any student, especially the athlete.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri has never shied from tossing his freshman into the proverbial pool and seeing if they can swim.

In 2007, his first year on the job, Mainieri started freshmen Jared Mitchell, Sean Ochinko and Blake Dean as one, four and five in his order on opening night.

Fellow frosh Ryan Schimpf soon joined the starting lineup, and the Tigers finished 29-26-1 that year.

Fast-forward a couple of seasons and those four were key cogs in LSU’s 2009 dash to Omaha and an eventual National Title.

Mainieri’s 2011 Tigers have relied on five newcomers from the country’s No. 1 rated signing class to contribute heavily, two of them in the weekend rotation.

All five have shown flashes of the brilliance that caught Mainieri’s eye at the high school level, but even during the stretch the head coach was quick to tell the media that they would go through hard times.

Their response to those rough patches would show what kind of players he really had.

“All of these kids that we recruit here were the best players on the high school teams, maybe the city they were, maybe the state they were in,” Mainieri said. “Because of the competition in high school, they won a lot, and they succeeded a lot.”

Freshman second baseman JaCoby Jones won three Mississippi state championships and collected more hits than anyone in the state’s history in the process.

“When they come to college, they’re not going to succeed at the same rate,” Mainieri said. “It’s just reality. How they handle it mentally is a critical factor in how they adjust to college baseball.”

Mainieri made a conscious effort to ease Jones into college baseball by moving him from third base to second base late in spring practice and batting him ninth in the order.

Jones raced out of the gate, hitting .439 during LSU’s 16-1 start, a stretch that prompted a move to the leadoff spot when LSU traveled to Georgia a week later.

Twenty-six games later, Jones’ average has dipped to .306.

“It’s tough,” Jones said. “You’ve just got to be mentally strong. I tell myself every day to think positive.”

Jones’ partner in the middle of the diamond knows a thing or two about stepping in as a freshman.

After 40 games of the 2009 season, Austin Nola took over the starting shortstop role. LSU finished 25-4 down the stretch en route to the program’s sixth NCAA title.

While the team enjoyed immense success, Nola hit just .240.

“I got ‘Think positive’ from Nola,” Jones said. “He tells me to be a competitor.”

While Jones sizzled in the early going, the learning curve has proven a bit steeper for catcher Ty Ross.

After 42 games, Ross has more strikeouts (30) than hits (25).

The dismissal of then-freshman Wes Luquette and the early departure of Micah Gibbs left a vacancy behind the dish for Mainieri, who has likened the situation to the 2008 LSU quarterback situation when redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee was forced into action and struggled.

“It just the speed of the game,” Ross said. “It takes time just like anything else.”

Ross has caught classmates Kurt McCune and Kevin Gausman as they have marched to the front of the weekend rotation in their first campaigns.

McCune, a native of Norco, La., dominated opposing hitters in the first half of the season, winning his first five decisions before sputtering in his past two outings against Auburn and Vanderbilt, allowing 13 earned runs in 8 2/3 innings in the process.

“McCune is going through what Gausman went through after a couple of rough outings,” Mainieri said. “He’s got to regroup and reestablish himself, and I think he’ll do that starting (Thursday) night.”

Gausman’s troubles came in consecutive outings against Georgia and Ole Miss. His five losses this season are just one shy of his career high school total.

Following the wobbly outings early in conference play, Gausman acknowledged that his confidence was shaken a bit, but the Dodgers’ sixth round selection rebounded with eight shutout innings against Arkansas and 8 1/3 innings against Auburn, when he allowed just three runs.

“I think Gausman is throwing the ball well,” Mainieri said. “I think [McCune and Gausman] are ready to go this weekend. They know what’s at stake. They have four starts left, and they’re all going to be critical for us.”

The first of these starts comes Thursday night as LSU and Kentucky, the league’s last place teams, meet up in game one of a three-game series.

McCune will oppose 6-foot-9 southpaw Alex Meyer in Thursday’s ESPNU tilt at 6:30 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium.

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