Slowly but surely, the pieces of the puzzle that will make up the 2012 LSU baseball roster are starting to fit into place.
A major component clicked in Friday when rising senior shortstop Austin Nola confirmed that he will be back for his final season.
Nola, who batted .296 with 13 doubles and 42 RBIs as a junior, gives LSU coach Paul Mainieri an experienced building block in the middle of the Tigers' defense.
The former Catholic High star will also finally get the chance to play on the same team with younger brother, Aaron Nola, who will be a freshman pitcher for LSU next season.
Both Nolas were selected by Toronto in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft – Aaron in the 22nd round and Austin in the 31st – but pro ball will wait.
That came into focus late last week when Austin Nola realized where he wanted to be when the 2012 season rolls around. With his family in Harwich, Mass., to visit him while he plays in the Cape Cod League, Nola said he couldn't ignore his heart.
"Since I've been up here this summer, my heart just kept pulling me back to LSU," he said. "The opportunity there is so great. You're playing for a great school and great coaching staff, and to go back as a senior, you can't ask for a better place to be.
"Going back for my senior year is something I'll never have the chance to do again. It's tough to pass up, especially growing up so close to it and experiencing what I already have. That's a tough place to leave."
Nola had just spoken to Mainieri on the phone when he arrived at his final decision.
"My family was here and we really hadn't talked about it much," Austin Nola said. "I wasn't planning on making a decision, and when I talked to Coach Mainieri on the phone, I told him I'd let him know when I had one. After I hung up, it hit me – my heart was pulling me toward LSU. So I called Coach right back and told him ‘I'm coming back and there doesn't have to be a question mark anymore.' "
Once Nola broke the news to Mainieri, he took a deep breath and started getting excited about a 2012 LSU team that has already been pegged as a College World Series contender by several national pundits before the Nolas ever made their decisions.
Another variable – albeit an unlikely one – is the possible return of center fielder Mikie Mahtook, who has yet to agree to financial terms with Tampa Bay after being selected in the first round of the draft.
Mahtook is still likely to sign with the Rays, but said last week he is leaving the door wide open to return to LSU.
"It's really exciting to think about all the guys coming back and how good we could be," Nola said. "And if Mikie came back too? Wow!"
Not surprisingly, Mainieri said Nola's decision was a jolt of good news, especially on the heels of Aaron Nola saying last week that he's headed to LSU.
"I've loved coaching Austin for three years, and to have him back for his senior year is lagniappe for me," Mainieri said. "I'm so thrilled for him, for our team and for everybody who follows LSU baseball because this kid really epitomizes everything that's good about our program and college baseball. Plus he's a very good player and that's going to help us a lot. Whenever you have senior leadership on your team, it's nothing but positive.
"Getting Aaron to come to school – and we could have easily lost him – adds a lot to our pitching staff and that was a big deal, too."
Austin Nola joins longtime infield mate Tyler Hanover and designated hitter Raph Rhymes among current Tigers who were drafted and have confirmed that they will return to school.
That leaves Mahtook and right-handed pitcher Tyler Jones as the only drafted players who haven't signed.
Mahtook was one of Tampa's 11 picks in the first two rounds. Six of those 11 have signed pro contracts with the Rays, including three outfielders. Mainieri said he spoke to Mahtook on Friday and made sure the multi-talented star knew he had a spot if he chooses to come back.
"They made him an offer and it was very significant, but he told me he wasn't signing for that amount," Mainieri said. "If he wants to come back then of course we'd welcome him with open arms. He's had a great career already and he'd come back as one of the best players in the country without a doubt. We're not counting on it. I want that kid to get whatever he deserves and if that's signing for the money he thinks he's worth, then he has my full blessing."
Jones is Nola's teammate in the Cape Cod League with the Harwich Mariners and is 0-1 with 13 strikeouts but eight walks and a 2.53 ERA in 10.2 innings. Taken by Minnesota in the 11th round despite a roller-coaster season (4-0 but 5.22 ERA), Jones' frame and velocity (consistently touches the 92-94 range) made him attractive to MLB scouts.
"They haven't agreed yet, but I very much anticipate he will sign," Mainieri said.
Among the remaining LSU recruits who were drafted, Mainieri said Arby Fields and Carson Baranik have told him they don't intend to sign and will be on campus next month when the school year begins.
At the opposite end, Johnny Eierman and Jake Cave are likely headed to pro ball. Eierman was a third-round pick by Tampa and Cave went in the sixth round to the New York Yankees. Another signee, Trevor Story, has already inked a contract with Colorado. Eierman and Story are both shortstops, making Nola's return a key.
That leaves the status of two incoming recruits up in the air – pitchers Cody Glenn (15th round by Toronto) and Nick Goody (22nd round by the Yankees).
"Glenn is 99% sure he's coming to school," Mainieri said. "Goody is anticipating an offer from the Yankees this weekend, and whatever offer is made, that's the final offer. If it's good enough to sign, he'll sign, and if not, he's coming to school."
Regardless of who shows up or who doesn't, Mainieri said LSU is done recruiting for the 2011-12 school year.
Not including the current players and incoming recruits Mainieri expects to pursue pro ball, there are potentially 44 players competing for spots on an NCAA-limited 35-man roster. Of those, 27 can be on scholarship.
"We've got enough players now and it's just a matter of who we have room for," said Mainieri, who said when the 2011 season abruptly ended without an invitation to the NCAA Tournament that summer-ball performances would be a deciding factor to whether or not a handful of veterans would stay in the program.
Among those are outfielder Trey Watkins, a junior who went undrafted. Watkins struggled in 2011, batting only .226 with a .351 on-base average – second-lowest in both categories among the LSU regulars.
Mainieri said Watkins is playing in the North Woods League and "his situation is still to be determined."
Drafted players have until Aug. 16 to either reach agreement with their parent clubs or head to college.
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